- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

“Spy” has all the trappings of a giant summer movie: major stars, a large budget (at least for a comedy), loud action scenes and a slew of international locales. The movie’s big comedy set pieces — a scooter chase through Rome, a bizarre outdoor concert in Paris, a helicopter showdown outside a villain’s lair — are frantic, creatively profane and often very funny.

But what really makes the movie work are its tiny moments: the fumbling motions and half-mumbled asides of star Melissa McCarthy, whose deft comedic judgment helps turn this just-OK movie into a pretty good one.

Miss McCarthy plays CIA agent Susan Cooper, a desk jockey whose job is to be the voice in the ear of superspy Bradley Fine, played with subtle brutishness by Jude Law. Fine is suave and beautiful, with impeccable taste in clothing and — thanks to Cooper’s assistance — the not-so-mysterious ability to see bad guys coming around every corner. But he’s a jerk to Cooper, thanking her for saving his life with a cheap plastic necklace featuring a cupcake, though he doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

The joke of the character is mostly in the casting: It’s a role that conveniently allows Mr. Law to poke fun at his own flawless physical beauty even while emphasizing it. Mr. Law seems to enjoy being pretty enough that he doesn’t mind making fun of himself for his looks.

Cooper, in contrast, is meek and lacks self-assurance. She is comfortable sitting safely at her desk and guiding someone else through dangerous encounters. “I could never do what you do,” she tells Fine, swooning over him even as he inadvertently belittles her. But as it turns out, she could, and eventually she does, after Rayna Boyanov (a sneering, icy, amusingly ridiculous Rose Byrne), an international arms dealer intent on selling a nuke to terrorists, announces that she knows the identities of all of the CIA’s active field agents.

Cooper, an unknown, finally gets her chance to be a real spy, which is to say that Miss McCarthy gets a chance to engage in series of silly, James Bond-esque high jinks as an undercover agent.

The movie’s Bond riffs are fine but mostly underwhelming, especially coming just a few months after “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” which skewered and bettered the series so effectively.

The movie also toys with an interesting feminist critique of the Bond films that is never fully developed, in part because Cooper is saddled with an unconvincing and unnecessary love for Fine.

Somewhat better is Cooper’s relationship with agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who goes rogue because he is upset that a “secretary” has been promoted to field work. Mr. Statham plays Ford with maniac gusto, and he gets many of the movie’s best lines, but the gender dynamic between Ford and Cooper quickly gets lost in cartoonish verbal comedy.

Yet Miss McCarthy keeps it from falling apart by focusing relentlessly, and hilariously, on the funny business of the moment. You never have time to think about whether it all adds up.

Part of what makes Miss McCarthy so funny is her exaggerated, exasperated sense of enthusiasm, and the rowdy and chaotic way it often seems to get away from her. Many of the movie’s best bits revolve around her saying that foulest, funniest, strangest things you can imagine, and she often seems as surprised as anyone else to discover what words are coming out of her mouth. Then, whatever it is she said, no matter how absurd, she just accepts it and makes it part of her.

In a way, she is teaching viewers how to watch the movie: Go with what’s funny, don’t think about it too hard and then move along.

TITLE: “Spy”

RATING: Rated R for vulgarity, comic violence

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

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