2015 • 120 minutes • 20th Century Fox
Watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the wake of the racist debacle that was Monty Python Live (Mostly) has been a particularly educational experience. I’ve been learning about Britain in the seventies, the infuriating amount of blackface and yellowface the Pythons thought they could get away with (BANSHEE SCREAM INTO THE NIGHT), and the difference between parody and satire. Parody is liberal; satire is radical. Parody pokes fun; satire skewers.
The Pythons are occasionally celebrated as satirists, and that’s quite true—of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Terry Gilliam’s later work. But watching the actual show, it’s very clear that, while the Pythons find bureaucracy, tradition, and authority exceedingly silly, they have no interest in upsetting it, just thumbing their noses at it. Robbed of the actual cultural context by the universe’s refusal to make me into an immortal pop culture consuming vampire, I can nonetheless see why it might seem radical—it’s certainly countercultural. But it’s just not enough.
The latest Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy collaboration Spy feels exactly like that—by being parody instead of satire, it’s just not enough. Despite occasionally flirting with more incisive commentary on spy films, it mostly ends up leaning on sexualized gags, makes fun of McCarthy’s Susan’s size a little too much, and actually ends on a joke that’s about dubious consent at best.
I do want to give Spy credit for the progress it does make. It does feature a heroine of size who is not only incredibly intelligent but incredibly physically capable from the word go. The best fight scene in the movie features McCarthy’s Susan battling an enemy operative—it is fantastic and it is brutal. The film does feature and center a heartwarming friendship between Susan and her best friend, played by a brilliantly blinkered Miranda Hart. McCarthy gets to explore more of her range than in previous films, getting to both a sweet, good-natured soul and a profane lunatic when the plot calls for her to pull her best Statham impression. And Bowie among us, is Jason Statham hilarious in this movie. Feig exploits his famed intensity to the hilt, particularly in a scene where he rattles off impossible things he’s done in the line of duty, but it was his first Face/Off joke that won my heart.
But when the film gets the chance to satirize, deconstruct, or even just handle the gender politics of spy films through a different lens, it drops the ball completely. If you don’t want to make an incisive satire of spy films, that’s fine. But even just parodying the sexual violence that permeates the James Bond franchise strays too closely to perpetuating it. Case in point: Peter Serafinowicz’s character, the Italian secret agent Aldo.
In a film that plays up the idea that men do not find Susan sexually appealing due to her looks, Aldo is the only one who expresses sexual interest in her—constantly, crudely, and over her loud and clear complaints. (At one point, Aldo approaches her and she tells him to buzz off because she just can’t deal with fending off his advances.) It would be one thing if Aldo, a little like Jude Law’s Bradley Fine, was subject to ridicule for his behavior, but he’s not. When everything seems bleak, he’s the first one to tell Susan that she is great at being a spy and help her. He becomes the most sympathetic male character in the film—who takes every opportunity to grope Susan against her will.
It’s just absolutely infuriating to watch a film with a well-developed female lead who actually interacts meaningful with other women where I’m asked to laugh at her suffering through constant low-level sexual harassment. The film just never seems sure what it wants to say about Susan’s agency—it wants to both affirm that she is a whole human being as well as take shots at her. And not character-based shots, but shots based on her size and gender. Sure, she refuses to utilize the humiliating cover identities she’s handed and use her own resources to style herself in an affirmative, positive way, but the film’s villain immediately craps on them. (By the way, Byrne’s Rayna, said villain, is marvelously brittle and entitled.)
In another movie season, I might be tempted to say that at least this is progress. But this is a summer movie season that started off with Mad Max: Fury Road, which proven that you can fully commit to utterly bonkers filmmaking and still be not only female-centered, but radically feminist. The hesitant politics of Spy just aren’t going to cut it after that.
I saw this film in theaters.