Disclaimer: I haven’t seen a lot of spy movies in my life, and if I have, I’ve overwhelmingly forgotten about them. After finally getting around to critical and audience darling Mission Impossible: Fallout last weekend, I was reminded, once again, that no matter how many times I could hypothetically watch Henry Cavill reload his biceps in that bathroom scene, spy movies aren’t my thing. James Bond gives me a migraine. The events of Fallout feel too familiar. Even Googling “popular spy movies” and scrolling through the posters at the top of the page, I can’t tell once from the other. It’s a giant blob of muted greys and blues; of white men leaning slightly sideways with a gun. I know it might come as a shock, but I’m just not really interested in that.
Enter The Spy Who Dumped Me, a presumed spoof on the spy movie genre that doesn’t really complete its mission, but succeeds in a much more unexpected way. After sitting through months of trailers featuring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon screaming at each other, in situations that I could only groan at and gags that seemed to continue well past the chance of eliciting laughter, I was convinced I was in for another migraine. I fashioned myself a kind of sadist in volunteering to review this film. And while I can count on my hands the times that movie genuinely made me laugh (I will highlight one presumedly improved joke about a teenage magician), I came out of it with a smile on my face rather than unhinging my jaw to accept fistfuls of Advil.
Audrey (Kunis) got dumped by her ex a year ago and is still pretty sour about it, so, on her birthday, her best friend Morgan (McKinnon) offers to help her cure her heartsickness: she wants to help Audrey burn all his shit. Little do they know that, meanwhile, the ex (Justin Theroux) is off somewhere in Lithuania, destroying farmer’s markets and interrupting a pair of lads watching Alf while he gets chased off their balcony and ultimately blows up a building. So Drew doesn’t exactly have time to respond to his barrage of a scorned texts, but when Audrey finally gives him a call and he tells her he’ll be at her place that night, one minute the girls are pouring lighter fluid on his skid-marked boxer briefs, the next, Drew’s clambering in through Audrey’s window to explain he has to get a plastic kudos trophy to Vienna and, in case he doesn’t make it out of her apartment alive (due to a forthcoming volley of bullets), it will be up to Audrey to complete the mission. Prior to this, Audrey had been lured out of her job at Not Trader Joe’s and tossed into a van by CIA agents Sebastian and Duffer (Sam Henshaw and an incredibly hammy Hasan Minhaj, respectively), who explain to her that Drew is a spy that must be found, or innocent people will perish – because, of course they will. Thus, commences Audrey and Morgan’s foibles across the European continent, in an attempt to finish what Drew started and avoid the clutches of the CIA and a host of villains hot on their bumbling tail.
There is nothing shallow about the relationship between Audrey and Morgan, in a film that would allow you to believe it would be something just that. A big-budget, mainstream comedy wants your money and your simple, monkey-brained ability to laugh at poop jokes; the emotional attachment provoked by well-formed bonds between characters just doesn’t make the cut. But the love between the two women is never sacrificed in favor of bad jokes (of which there are many), and the chemistry between Kunis and Mckinnon is as palpable as the awkward delivery of all Hasan Minhaj’s lines (of which there are even more). In two short hours, their fourteen years of presumed friendship is made abundantly real, and their characters are made real as well; Morgan, outspoken and charismatic not dissimilar to other Kate McKinnon characters, grapples with the fear of being seen as “too much” to the point she sacrificed shame and insecurity she felt at the hands of Drew in favor of her friend’s happiness, and holds a fierce attachment to her parents; Audrey, who is perpetually plagued by the inability to finish what she starts and by people around her looking down on her, assuming she doesn’t know what she’s doing, just wants to be taken seriously. The central conflict of the story never once relies on any instability within the pair’s bond, which remains a stronghold of the entire film. No matter where one of them goes, the other is closely following. They compliment each other’s “bad ass” murders; swindle a couple of “bum bags” off a pair of Australian tourists; and even when one of them majorly fucks up, the other is exasperated but understanding. The power of platonic female love, in the end, overpowers mass murderers, machine guns, and double agents (Warning: This might not apply to real life).
Audrey and Morgan do not bumble their way through this mission that’s far above their expertise as heavily as they are perceived to be, consistently proving to the people that underestimate them that they’re capable of more than they’re believed to be – especially if they stick together. But, all things considered, it’s just fun to watch these two actresses play off one another. While most of the jokes never land as well as Drew does when he jumps out of that balcony and falls on top of a truck, it’s refreshing to see Kate McKinnon given cinematic material that’s even almost good. Her character feels focused, much unlike her frustratingly improved turn in that *shudders* Ghostbusters remake, and her goofy, unabashed nature plays well against Kunis’s slightly straighter woman. But even if the bulk of the jokes don’t work, it never feels as if you’re being strung along a half-assed plot with thin characters propped up by jokes like three toddlers sitting on top of each other in a giant overcoat; the audience is made to understand where Audrey and Morgan came from, where they’re going, and why they’re supposed to matter to us. This inclusion of character depth in a movie where I never expected to see any made me forget that I was supposed to be laughing. I was just happy to root for these characters and see their friendship embolden one another.
Perhaps I should give The Spy Who Dumped Me a negative rating, since it doesn’t necessarily “fail” on every other level, but it certainly doesn’t succeed. Still, I did not walk out of this film feeling like my time was wasted – quite the contrary. Maybe at the heart of the matter we should be demanding better films to house our much-needed portrayals of genuine female relationships, but I don’t believe there’s anything wrong in taking the wins as they come. The Spy Who Dumped Me is a comedy film that isn’t very funny, but there is something to be said for the characters at the helm of it, who carry the film’s lack of intelligent jokes on the backs of their compatibility and brazen love for one another. Does this female dimensionality have anything to do with the fact that the film was not only directed by a woman, but co-written by one too? (*ahem*) Who can truly say.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs
Categories: Reviews, Women Film-makers
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