Don’t Worry, No One Will Notice Her

Spy. A film by Paul Feig.

There have always been comedians who were funny partly because of the way they looked: Buster Keaton’s hangdog deadpan, for instance, or Stan Laurel’s clueless bewilderment, or Joe E. Brown’s funny rubbery face, whose mouth could open to an astonishing degree. When I was young my father liked to walk to church, through a Pittsburgh neighborhood called East Liberty, and on the way we would cut through a train station that was still operating. One time when we did Joe E. Brown was standing in there in the newsstand (his son was General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates). My father, never one to miss an opportunity, said, “Joe. How are you doing, Joe? I want you to meet my sons.” So I shook hands with this surprisingly slight short man, who just stood there quietly. He didn’t open his mouth and go “OOOOOHHHHHHH!”

There are also comedians who are funny because of how large they are. Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, Curly Howard, Lou Costello, Jackie Gleason, John Candy, to name only those who come immediately to mind. Sometimes the funny thing was doing something that large men don’t do, like riding a small bicycle, or trying to sit in a normal sized seat. In a short film where Laurel and Hardy managed to utterly demolish a piano in the course of moving it, Hardy does an amazing soft shoe. He was a wonderful dancer. Jackie Gleason was also, despite his size, quite graceful physically. Other men, Lou Costello and Curly, were funny because they stumbled around and got whacked and picked on.

Into this tradition steps (quite gracefully) Melissa McCarthy, who does something we don’t expect large women to do in a movie: be sexy and attractive. I’m sure it’s not politically correct to talk about her size, but it is (pardon the expression) the elephant in the room: part of the reason she’s funny is that she’s so big, and keeps—to my eyes—getting bigger (which is a little worrisome. I feel as if John Candy disappeared before we got to know him). She was proceeded in this tradition by Roseanne Barr, who also (like McCarthy) had a sitcom where she was married to a large man, then went on to take various other roles, but Roseann always had an edge to her: you had the feeling she looked the way she did because of some deep dysfunction in her past and was funny largely because she was so bitter. She had a little smile on her face, but always seemed to me deeply angry. McCarthy isn’t like that. She seems positively sweet.

I’m not an expert on her work, though I loved “Bridesmaids,” the movie where the women finally said, “All right guys, we can be as gross and raunchy and foul-mouthed as you.” I liked Identity Theft less, because the woman seemed like such a bitch, though the plot ultimately revealed her softer side. I don’t like it when any character—woman or man—just seems crude. I wasn’t going to see “Spy” because the whole premise seemed preposterous: this person was going to go underground? She was going to wave a gun around? But it’s been a slow movie summer, so we decided to go, and much to my surprise, I loved it. It is my favorite of all the things I have seen her in, and probably the best spy spoof I’ve ever seen.

Melissa plays Susan Cooper, an agent who stays back in the office and observes another agent on camera, warning them of dangers that are coming. The whole thing is a bit preposterous, and for some reason they have to add the detail that the office where these agents are working is infected with various vermin, so mice are crawling around in women’s hair while they’re trying to save some guy’s life by talking into his ear bud. Susan’s the backup for an agent named Bradley Fine (Jude Law) who is tracking an international group of thugs who are trying to steal a nuclear bomb and sell it to terrorists. She’s got more than a crush on Fine, and when he is apparently killed decides to go into the field and finish the job for him. This sounds preposterous at first blush, except that it turns out she’s had the same training he has. And off she goes.

I think the reason the film works so well is that there are really only three comedians in the whole bunch, McCarthy, the brilliant British comedian Miranda Hart, who’s another backup agent like McCarthy, and Jason Stratham, who plays a ridiculously macho and compulsive lying agent named Rick Ford. Everyone else in the movie plays it pretty straight, while these three are bumbling around in various ways. This would be a decent spy movie if it weren’t so funny. Particularly impressive is the Australian actress Rose Byrne, who plays a villainous, arrogant, extremely wealthy woman who is right in the middle of the nefarious plot. She’s completely serious, and at the same time every word she speaks is hilarious.

Nowadays with stunt doubles and special effects, absolutely anybody can be in a movie like this, knock people around, stick a knife through their hands, kill them (people actually die in this movie, and die bloodily, unlike in a lot of spoofs). It’s funny that a woman is doing this, that a large woman is doing it, that a woman who is supposedly a lonely wallflower is doing it; it’s funny that Melissa McCarthy is doing it. The whole thing is funny. You can’t stop laughing.

The plot takes as many fast turns as a Mexican bus traveling through the mountains. It’s a bit much to follow (and probably I didn’t. I didn’t care). The movie is funny, and fun, in almost exactly the way that a James Bond movie is funny. (You don’t take all that stuff seriously, do you? Real spies don’t do that stuff.) But the actor isn’t Sean Connery. It’s Melissa McCarthy!