I've already written a little about "Spy" and "Trainwreck" in the context of their lead actresses making waves at the summer box office. I think it's time I go into a little more depth. A few general comments first though - it's important to remember that though both movies are unqualified hits, they're smaller titles with very modest budgets, aimed at very specific audiences. Nobody's asking Amy Schumer to headline a "Jurassic Park" movie soon. What's the most heartening to me, though, is the part these movies have played in challenging the male-dominated summer movie status quo and helping to reinvigorate some old formulas.
Let's start with Melissa McCarthy in "Spy," directed by Paul Feig. Now, this was the first proper Melissa McCarthy vehicle I've seen, as she was sharing the spotlight with Sandra Bullock in "Heat," and had only a supporting role in Feig's "Bridesmaids." Can McCarthy carry a film by herself? Yes, and quite well. Notably, here she's not playing a comic relief caricature, but an underdog lead that we're meant to relate to and root for. Her Susan Cooper is a CIA analyst who stays behind a desk at headquarters, feeding information to James Bond analog Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on his daring missions, via headset. However, after a crisis that grounds all the regular agents, Susan gets her chance to go into the field, hot on the trail of an international arms dealer, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). Cue the ridiculous disguises, the silly (but also pretty impressive) fight scenes, and Jason Statham as rogue agent Rick Ford indulging in some beefy self-mockery.
We've seen plenty of spy spoofs in the past, but "Spy" quickly distinguishes itself by simply letting things play out from Susan's unusual POV. The CIA is presented as a far more typical workplace than we've ever seen before, mostly manned by underappreciated techies and analysts who never get any of the credit. Susan's self esteem keeps taking hits from all sides as she tries to enjoy the glamorous secret agent experience other movies have promised, but just keeps getting stuck with all the downsides of the job nobody ever talks about. The humor is on the crude and violent side, but the tone is much lighter than I expected, and there's a good amount of time devoted to Susan's romantic woes, friendship with fellow analyst Nancy (Miranda Hart), and sentimental self-esteem building. The movie is taking as much from working woman dramedies like "Working Girl" and "9 to 5" as it's taking from the Bond movies.
"Spy" offers a boisterous good time, though it's not a particularly clever film and comes off as a little slapdash in construction. Most of the laughs come from good character work from McCarthy, Statham, Rose Byrne, and the rest of a strong ensemble cast. I'm not sure that this kind of material is the best fit for McCarthy, but she's one of the few actresses who could have made this work. As for Paul Feig, he commits no egregious cinematic sins, but I don't think he's as strong here as he could be. If we think of "Spy" as the dress rehearsal for the all-woman "Ghosbusters" reboot coming next year, I admit that I'm a little worried. McCarthy should be fine though. "Spy" has proved she definitely has the action-comedy chops, and maybe she should get a "Jurassic Park" movie one of these days.
On to "Trainwreck." I've only seen a few clips from Schumer's Comedy Central show "Inside Amy Schumer," but it was enough to convince me that she's talented, smart, and offers some good perspective. There have been complaints that Schumer's only good at playing herself, but that's a persona that seems to have plenty of comedic mileage. In "Trainwreck" she plays Amy Townsend, perhaps the most likeable female reprobate we've seen onscreen in a long time. She's a functional alcoholic, parties and sleeps around with abandon, and is more of a walking mess than your usual Judd Apatow movie protagonist. At the same time, Amy is clearly a woman of some talents, who writes for a men's magazine, and is dating a bodybuilder, Steven (John Cena), when we first meet her. She's also close to her younger sister Kim (Brie Larsen) and father Gordon (Colin Quinn), who is making a bumpy transition to assisted living.
And then Amy meets Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor who works with basketball stars, which gives the filmmakers the excuse to write LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire into the story. Amy is a commitment-phobe, but she and Aaron hit it off. And what was a fairly raunchy sex comedy slowly navigates through more typical rom-com dilemmas. "Trainwreck" pulls this off because it doesn't compromise its characters. I love that Amy is so sexually open, and that the film doesn't vilify her for her lifestyle all that much. Yes, she's the film's titular trainwreck, but it's because she's not regulating her appetites, not that she has them. I could easily see the film having a male lead with many of the same issues and attitudes. Dr. Conners is also an unusually strong romantic lead, one of several good performances that Bill Hader has given us lately. I really want to see him in more serious roles after this.
What issues I do have with the film mostly stem from it being a Judd Apatow production, and subject to many of his bad habits. As many have noted, it's too long and has too many distracting cameos, particularly an ill-conceived intervention scene which really should have been cut. However, LeBron James does fine with the material he's given, and John Cena is absolutely brilliant. Having so much of the movie taking place in and around the professional sports world also keeps the typical rom-com atmosphere mostly at bay. It's not to the point where "Trainwreck" is pandering to the male audience at any point, but you can definitely see them being taken into account here, and a good balance being struck, which is nice to see. I really hope we get more romantic comedies like this in the future, because this genre sorely needs more revitalizing.