Susanna Fogel set herself a very clear goal when she co-wrote and then directed “The Spy Who Dumped Me”: to make an espionage comedy with heroines that would not be described as “the female version" of not a mirror of James Bond or Austin Powers, not a reversal of roles, but something deeper. In an interview to KPCC, a Pasadena-based public radio station, Fogel emphasized that she didn’t like being compared to other female filmmakers because there’s no connection between them other than gender. She said she’s waiting for the day when a movie like hers won’t be compared to “Wonder Woman.”
“There need to be more stories about women everywhere on the spectrum – competent to incompetent, Naked Gun to [Jason] Bourne, and to everything – and then each one won’t carry the weight of representing everything about women,” she said.
Fogel’s contribution to equal representation is a focus on the dynamics between two friends. Her first film, “Life Partners,” was an indie comedy that highlighted the relations between two women, and her sophomore effort, “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” follows suit. This time, though, Fogel enters new territory with a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, and straight into a realm identified with hero-buddies – “Lethal Weapon,” “Rush Hour” and the like. The genre of the buddy-movie action comedy is a point on the spectrum that has been captured by women – consider Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in “The Heat” – but Fogel is out to shift the focus from policing to international intrigue.
Mila Kunis is Audrey, a bored cashier from Los Angeles who on her thirtieth birthday feels that she’s in a rut. Kate McKinnon plays Morgan, Audrey’s best friend and roommate, who can’t find her niche as an actor but takes advantage of every opportunity to play any sort of character, even on the street. Audrey’s gloom turns to fury when her partner, Drew (Justin Theroux, star of “The Leftovers”) leaves her – via text – and disappears.
While the two are wondering whether to burn his stuff, it turns out that his job as a podcast host on public radio is only a brilliant cover (after all, who would listen?) for his work as a CIA agent, and that he has even left them an assignment. Accordingly, the two women head for Austria to give something to someone – that’s pretty much as specific as the explanation gets – and there, naturally, things go wrong. The two flee with the object while armed men with clashing interests engage in a firefight in a café, an event that leads to a dizzying motorcycle chase. This is only the start of a trans-Europe escape, in which the plot flutters in every direction like confetti, leaving viewers with only McKinnon’s funny characters and the hunk pose of Sam Heughan (Jamie Fraser from “Outlander”) to cling to.
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Somewhat surprisingly, the comedy element turns out to be the film’s Achilles’ heel. McKinnon, hilarious as always, and playing a character who enjoys making up characters, steals the show, of course. So potent is her chemistry with Kunis that it’s hard to know whether they’re sticking to the script or improvising wacky dialogues between them. It’s not by chance that the funniest bits are when McKinnon speaks on the phone with the comedians Paul Reiser and Jane Curtin, who play worried, prying Jewish parents. Overall, though, there are too few funny moments and too many jokes that fall flat in a movie that’s first and foremost a comedy.
At the same time, contrary to the traditional thrust of action comedies toward humor, Fogel, in a brave but misbegotten move, plays up the action. Assuming the movie would earn an R rating, the studio exempted the director from aiming the movie at children – and she exploits that freedom to serve up large doses of crass, grotesque violence. Chases and fights follow the best action tradition, sometimes too expectedly, and limbs are lopped off somewhat less expectedly.
The movie is interesting precisely in its small gestures, where the transition from heroes to heroines is most pronounced. Thus a collection of beefy, good-looking but expendable villains soon turn out to be pathetic specimens compared to the person who stirs fear and envy alike in the heroines: a petite, flexible, gorgeous Olympic gymnast, now turned lethal assassin. The choice to position her – and provide her with traits that converse with social dictates imposed on women – as the film’s chief terrorizer, is something of a feminist statement. Additionally, a scene in which the assassin battles McKinnon on a trapeze in a circus act is one of the most creative and riveting action sequences seen on the screen of late. But it, too, is a one-time flicker.
Despite the choice of subject and all the jokes about feces and reproductive organs, this is a movie with high ambitions. Fogel approaches the buddy-movie genre reverently and tries to smooth the masculine corners so as to broaden the range and make a place for women as she thinks they should fit in. It’s a world in which women waste the bad guys, the men are splendid hunks, and feminist references are interwoven offhandedly in a few jokes. Fogel the screenwriter has clearly been careful not to overdo such references, in order to appeal to a wide audience, but it’s precisely there that she and the movie are at their peak.
A recurrent joke is Morgan’s crazy admiration for the spymaster, played by Gillian Anderson, because she is a feminist ideal (“What? You’re the boss? And yet you have not sacrificed one ounce of femininity!”) The problem is that this is the kind of joke the movie needs more of, while the dilemma of hiding the secret object in the heroines’ orifices is a repeated joke that quickly runs dry.
Buddy-movies usually depict different protagonists who display similarity and closeness through action and comedy sequences. Here, though, the point of departure is that Audrey and Morgan are already best friends. The espionage capers only prompt them to pour out personal problems for the sake of mutual support and reinforcement. Fogel, who has been a contributor to The New Yorker online, displays extensive knowledge of a genre that doesn’t lend itself easily to innovation, and has come up with an interesting experiment. At bottom, her story is about two women who gradually discover their power and, more importantly, also the disparity between their power and their self-image. This is also the secret of the charm of their partnership – Morgan berates Audrey precisely after she’s successful, because she minimizes her achievements and diminishes herself – and this generates compassion.
Fogel’s endeavor is fascinating but uneven. There’s no reason to rush to see “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” but it has enough enjoyable moments to pass a couple of forgettable hours. In this sense, Fogel has achieved her declared goal, by broadening the feminine spectrum to encompass bland spy comedies. On the other hand, she gives a platform to the star of “Saturday Night Live,” who seems like the most unrealized potential in Hollywood today. For too many years McKinnon has been a tremendous talent waiting for the right movie. Perhaps it’s not surprising that what all the best moments in the movie share is McKinnon, whether she’s in conflict with her buddy, her parents or the bad guys.