A good spy needs to strike a covert balance between two lives. One is the dangerous world of action-packed excitement, and the other is the mundane, everyday cover story. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” also calls for such a balance — in the vein of Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy,” it’s half action flick, half comedy — but here, the divide is anything but subtle.
After Audrey (Mila Kunis) is dumped by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux), her best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) suggests they burn everything he left behind in her apartment. But when it turns out that her ex-boyfriend is a spy and that everyone — CIA, Interpol and independent agents — wants to get ahold of his innocuous fantasy football trophy, Audrey and Morgan must run through Europe to complete Drew’s mission on the lam.
The blending of the action and comedy halves is anything but a covert affair; it’s as though two warring directors were in charge of the two portions. While the movie has its share of acclaimed superstars, their portrayals fail to mend the gaps. McKinnon and Kunis are funny, though less so in action-packed scenes, and the spy world — though populated by brilliant “The Daily Show” comedian Hasan Minhaj — is never truly humorous.
However, it’s as though McKinnon was allowed to write her own jokes: Her lines roll off her tongue effortlessly, her mannerisms constituting a well-oiled machine. Every joke of her surreal off-brand humor, perfected on “Saturday Night Live” and sharpened in her zany “Ghostbusters” role, lands to a T. Without McKinnon, the film wouldn’t be a comedy.
As for the action, sure, it’s well-shot and the special effects are cool, but the narrative takes so long to bridge the two worlds that there’s no real emotional investment in the shootouts and explosions, the cornerstone of a good action flick. If we don’t care who lives or dies, we might as well just go next door to “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and watch America’s favorite Scientologist do his own stunts.
In fairness, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” has some fantastic laughs, each so well-written and delivered (by McKinnon) that it’s a shame the humor is often sidelined for a nonsensical action narrative. When McKinnon and Kunis are not on screen, laughs are sparse and awkward. It’s their friendship that provides many of the film’s endearing and quirky plot points, a relationship sustained by the insurmountable chemistry between the two.
The film attempts to right the wrongs of an industry rarely left shaken, if ever stirred, by women-led films. It’s not a remake, it features female heroes and villains, it’s co-written and directed by a woman, and at its strongest points, it’s hilarious. But when nearly every problem and solution comes from a male character, Kunis and McKinnon feel less like agents (of either the secret or free-willed type) and more like shuttled sheep, going where they’re told to go, doing what they’re told to do and rarely coming up with original ideas of their own, save for a handful of notable instances.
They make for unconvincing agents not because they’re average American idiots who crack stupid jokes — we’ve seen that archetype thrive many times before. They’re unconvincing spies because they always need men to rescue them, no matter how far-fetched this rescuing is. Hell, even Edward Snowden (Tom Stourton) saves the day at one point. While the lead characters’ incompetence provides the movie’s humor, it also leaves the flick feeling distinctly unempowering — sure, women are “funny now” and Gillian Anderson can rock a pantsuit while leading a government agency, but does that count for anything?
“The Spy Who Dumped Me” aims for too many targets. While it knocks down a few, it ultimately misses its mark, its mission objective and raison d’être: to provide a humor-driven, female-led action comedy. Let’s hope the further development of the genre isn’t a mission: impossible.
“The Spy Who Dumped Me” is now playing at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas.
Caroline Smith is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].