Wednesday, June 12, 2024

‘The Spy Who Dumped Me’ Is a New Take on an Old Tale

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I can’t quite make up my mind about Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me. At times it is so close to being good you can taste it. While at other times it falls flat, and you just feel bad for everyone involved. At least, I felt that way at the beginning.

The Spy Who Dumped Me in many ways has a lot in common with The Hitman’s Bodyguarda mismatched buddy comedy wherein Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson play rivals in the opposing profession, bodyguard, and hitman. The duo is forced to work together to take down a nefarious dictator. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a miserable sluggish, lazy, at times misogynistic bore. It also never figured out what it wanted to be.

Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me never feels lazy and knows what it wants to be. But she never really figures out how to reconcile the gory violence and brash humor. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. She wrote the script with David Iserson and the two wisely keep the focus on Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (Kate McKinnon).

Having been dumped by her longtime boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) Audrey is spending her birthday surrounded by frenemies at a birthday party thrown by Morgan. “Sorry, I didn’t think they would show. I needed more people to fill the quota to rent the bar out.”

In an effort to cheer Audrey up, Morgan suggests burning Drew’s belongings he left at Audrey’s apartment. Audrey texts Drew. (He is somewhere in Eastern Europe trying not to be killed by enemy agents.) She texts him his stuff is about to be ash. Drew begs her to hold off on the bonfire. He’s hidden something very important in his second place trophy for fantasy football.

I enjoyed the clever cutaways as Fogel shows us Drew proving to be an expert fighter and marksman. Fogel contrasts this with the ladies mocking him as they throw his stuff in the fire. Thankfully Audrey’s ignorance of Drew’s real identity is cleared up within the first ten minutes.

Kunis as Audrey is a rarity in the modern cinematic landscape. She’s the type of character usually played by Seth Rogen or James Franco. Her Audrey is in her mid 30’s and adrift in a haze of uncertainty. She’s a cashier at a grocery store who spends her nights getting drunk and high with her best friend Morgan.

Audrey isn’t happy and isn’t shy about expressing her anxieties or displeasure. Mila Kunis is one of those actresses that Hollywood always seems at a loss regarding what to do with her. Fogel has made a brilliant discovery: make her the straight woman. Kunis and McKinnon are essentially Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Audrey is just trying to find a little happiness, and if she can get laid and get high, all the better.

McKinnon is, as usual, amazing. The Jerry Lewis comparison is not hyperbole. In an interview, Lewis once described his and Dean’s club act as “It’s a man and his monkey.” Trying to pinpoint why McKinnon is funny is hard. She just is.

Few actresses could find humor just by eating but somehow McKinnon does it. She shines in roles where her character acts like Harpo Marx. Of all the Marx Brothers, Harpo was the one who seemed as if he had slipped into our dimension from another one. McKinnon’s Morgan is like that, but she finds ways to ground her. We’ve all known a Morgan at one time or another, the friend who seems unbound by societal conventions yet whose loyalty is bone deep.

The Spy Who Dumped Me has an unstable, frenetic, kinetic energy buzzing throughout. The action is at times on par with Mission Impossible. Not in the sort of jaw-dropping “they did their own stunts” way, though the ladies do some remarkable stunts. But the action is slickly and beautifully choreographed and photographed. If I were to discover Fogel’s next project was just a straight-up action movie, I would be pretty stoked.

Fogel’s action is clear and distinct. The camera work by Barry Peterson and the editing by Jonathan Schwartz allow for gripping action. The Spy Who Dumped Me is only Fogel’s second feature and yet the action scenes have a confident muscularity about them. In contrast though, in the scenes where Morgan and Audrey are talking the camera feels weighed down with lead. She plants the camera down, dead center, and films Audrey and Morgan. In contrast to the gripping action scenes, such scenes feel as if The Spy Who Dumped Me grinds to a halt.

At one point Audrey and Morgan hijack an Uber only to be chased by a gang of masked motorcyclists. The driver is shot. Audrey is forced to sit on his lap and drive. From a purely practical standpoint having the driver murdered so Kunis has to sit in his lap to drive is kind of ingenious. It allows Fogel to have the stuntman do the stunt driving while Kunis is allowed to both act and still be in the actual speeding car.

Morgan’s and Audrey’s back and forth in this scene is as tight as the action. Part of what makes me so forgiving of The Spy Who Dumped Me is the relationship between the two leads. Morgan is never not there for Audrey and vice versa. While the two are on a train heading to their next rendezvous, Morgan reveals something Drew said to her.

The night Audrey met Drew, she was with Morgan, of course. Morgan stepped aside and let her friend enjoy the night. When Drew walked past her she introduced herself as Audrey’s best friend and warned him if he hurt her, he’d have her to contend with. “Morgan, anyone ever tell you-you’re a bit much?” It’s a mixture of what Drew says and how he says it.

The movies don’t much care for women like Audrey or Morgan. Audrey almost never smiles. While she can clean up nicely, she feels more comfortable in clothes designed to not show off her figure. Morgan is unashamed of her body but is also almost pure ID. Unhinged, loud, and honest, Morgan is far from the normal femme fatale. “He’s not the first guy to tell me I was a little bit ‘much’.” Audrey holds Morgan and assures her she’s fine the way she is.

The relationship between the two women is refreshingly complex and intimate. Besties for life who have each other’s back. They may not always have the best advice but the advice always sounds good. When Morgan and Audrey are being tortured by the model/gymnast/interrogator Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) the two spill everything about each other. Nadedja is baffled. “How do you know so much about each other?”

Fogel and Iserson’s script is clever in how it explores the expectations put on women. Still, a dark absurd humor bubbles underneath it all. Whether it’s Morgan telling her Mom (Jane Curtin) and Dad (Paul Reiser) literally everything that happens or Audrey cutting off a man’s thumb and putting it in her lipstick holder so she can access his phone, the writers have a no holds barred attitude.

The Spy Who Dumped Me stumbles because we see Audrey cut off the man’s thumb. The violence is handled with a brutal honesty that is off-putting. I couldn’t help of thinking of the Peter Falk and Alan Arkin buddy comedy The In-Laws. Much like The Spy Who Dumped Me, that movie has a weird idiosyncratic rhythm to it. Maybe that’s what I’m responding too.

You see enough movies and eventually you become brainwashed to a point, conditioned might be a better word. Either way you begin to accept there is only one way to do things. The first time I saw The In-Laws I found myself uneasy and not really into it. A second viewing revealed my reaction had only been because the movie wasn’t behaving the way I thought it should.

Shocking to think about but while women buddy comedies are not new, women buddy/action movies are. Even then women buddy movies are not nearly as prevalent as the men’s. Part of inclusion is admitting that there might be more than one way to tell a story other than the way you were taught. Perhaps my reaction to The Spy Who Dumped Me is less about the movie and more with me. Reconciling what I know and am comfortable with mixed with the notion that everything I know might be wrong.

A shaggy dog of a movie, I nevertheless found myself laughing out loud more times than not. The Spy Who Dumped Me labors to a great extent not to waste the talent of anyone involved. Possibly my reluctance to come down too hard is because despite the flaws, I admire The Spy Who Dumped Me. So few movies feel as alive as Fogel’s sophomore outing. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

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