Everyone has a favorite Melissa McCarthy trope. Maybe yours is the charming sweetheart, aka Sookie St. James in Gilmore Girls. Maybe it’s the anything-for-a-laugh comedian we’ve seen on SNL. Or maybe, it’s the loud-mouthed tomboy, a la Tammy—arguably the same trope she appears to play in Spy, which hits theaters today.
Some say Melissa has quickly evolved to play one role: the raunchy, obnoxious female. I can follow that logic; her most recent films include St. Vincent, Tammy, The Heat, Identity Thief and Bridesmaids. There aren’t many fundamental differences among those roles. So naturally, when previews for Spy were released, critics bemoaned her character choice yet again. But this time, I think things are different.
As this Time magazine article eloquently puts it, “Amidst broad comedy, McCarthy, more than ever before, found a character.”
Melissa plays a CIA analyst named Susan Cooper who has layers to her. She has more than just a back story. She has relatable emotions, ambitions and reasons for acting the way she does. For once, she’s been given a true character arc.
In Spy, McCarthy gets to do all the stuff she does best: Physical comedy, one-liners, that kind of no-nonsense hilarity that she can pull out at any time. But she also gets a little bit more depth. She plays CIA analyst Susan Cooper, a woman who’s spent her whole life pushing papers. When a situation arises that pushes her out into the field, she’s a tad hesitant. Turns out Susan has been taught her whole life to know her place and keep quiet.
What that means is that as a character, Susan doesn’t bring the crazy right out of the gate. She doesn’t slap you in the face with a big personality. Instead, she grows into it—and into herself—as the film goes on. Images of Melissa as a spinster cat lady are dominating the movie’s PR (she’s literally called one in the trailer), but that’s just one part of the story. She plays a woman who gains the self-confidence to excel at her job. She goes from afraid to empowered, from self-doubt to full on glamor.
And that is what’s at the heart of the movie: Not a just a rock-em-sock-em action film or a gross-out comedy, but a movie that shows a woman coming into her own. Yes, she dons costumes and crashes a scooter and wears a gaudy (but kind of rad, guys) t-shirt with a giant cat’s face on it. But it’s not for the sake of being ridiculous. It’s what makes sense for the character.
It would be easy to see Spy and think, “Outrageous circumstances and crazy wigs. AKA, exactly what I expected from Melissa McCarthy.” Instead, take a minute to recognize her character’s development throughout the movie. Turns out, she can mix physical comedy and charm like a pro. Finally, this leading leady gets the leading role she deserves.
Featured image via