ACTION SCENE. Okay, that’s kinda neat. Quiet establishing scene. Wait, is that supposed to be funny? MORE BIG BOOM. Okay, this is a comedy, so why am I not laughing? MORE BOOM. Hey, we have a butt shot – oh, and there’s a big, uncircumcised penis. Well, that was kinda funny, but really? Dead guys. More dead guys. Did the director’s notes to Kate McKinnon include “Say the least funny and most awkward things imaginable, and people will laugh”? What the hell is going on? What am I watching?
And so on. The Spy Who Dumped Me is neither pastiche or parody. It is also not a straight-up action film or romantic comedy. The movie belongs to a weird substratum I like to call “Let’s Fling Everything At the Wall and See What Sticks” Cinema. It cannot be defined by its disparate parts or as a whole; the best you can do is focus on what (you hope) the director intends you to grab and hang on while the ground drops away from your feet.
Director/co-writer Susanna Fogel has made, at best, a film showing two strong women defying expectations while finding time to celebrate and honor their years-long friendship. It’s a valiant concept, and it’s the film’s biggest takeaway. The chemistry between Mila Kunis’ Audrey and Kate McKinnon’s Morgan makes this film much easier to navigate; they bounce well off each other, with Audrey being the straight-woman Abbott-type to Morgan’s goofy Costello. It’s the reason you’ll stay in your seat, hoping and wishing for the film to get better while the film figuratively unspools.
Kunis gives her patented brand of freneticism and naïveté to Audrey, a health food store cashier recently given the most brusque of Dear Jane letters in the form of a text message from her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux). After getting sloppy drunk at Audrey’s birthday party, both she and Morgan attempt to achieve a much-needed post-breakup catharsis by carrying out the ancient rite of “Burn His Shit.” What they don’t know is at the exact same time in Vilnius, Lithuania, Drew is dodging assassins and amassing a pile of dead bodies in his wake, pausing only to frantically beg Audrey to hold off on the shit-burning.
Audrey is shown to be a woman who believes in others more readily than she believes in herself. She’s sweet and charming, with just the slightest hint of low self-esteem, tossing around lots of self-deprecating remarks and not giving herself a chance. We also get the breadth of Morgan’s character in these opening moments; she’s the friend who goes WAY over the top to make her loved ones smile. She has no filter, flitting between having no social skills to being a terrific schmoozer. Yet McKinnon has the skill to make comedic art out of saying or doing exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, which is Morgan’s only definition. She doesn’t take orders and rules don’t apply to her. Morgan’s a hard act to pin down; it’s best to just get out of her way while both McKinnon and Morgan do their thing, as they’re not exactly one and the same.
When Drew turns up a day later as promised, he confesses to hiding his spy identity from Audrey, declaring the breakup was an effort to keep her safe. Almost as soon as he’s done so, a sniper’s laser dot appears on his forehead and Audrey’s apartment starts exploding. He’s given just enough time to get Audrey out of the way and to tell her to give a trophy (which was about to burn hours earlier) to someone named Vern in Vienna before two bullets send him to the floor permanently. Audrey and Morgan escape with their lives and “the package,” as these movies of this type seem to always describe whatever MacGuffin needs to be transported away with all due haste.
So begins a nearly-incomprehensible whirlwind adventure with Audrey and Morgan at the helm. Multiple feints, shadow organizations, handlers, and red herrings are thrown at us at a rapid clip, giving us no time to divine who’s who or what’s what. The few times we see actions outside of Audrey and Morgan’s sphere of consciousness are deliberately misleading and confusing, especially those involving a stern British intelligence team leader (Gillian Anderson) and her right-hand men Sebastian (Sam Heughan) and Duffer (Hasan Minhaj). TV favorites Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser pop up as Morgan’s clueless and overly-sharing parents, giving us some kind of clue as to where Morgan gets her ethereally strange nature.
The action scenes are competently put together, and they’re admittedly exciting. A motorcycle chase through Vienna provides some fun surprises, while a trapeze fight – yes, a trapeze fight – is just as equally unexpected and amusing. The film hums and throbs during these sequences, peppered with Morgan tossing off random non-solutions to their problems and Audrey somehow – through luck or innate skill – rising to each challenge and kicking major ass.
Yet all of this dwells within a dichotomy which lasts from the opening credits to the mid-credits scene. How are we supposed to believe these two – Audrey being a Trader Joe’s-type store cashier, and we don’t even know what Morgan does for a living – have the money to jet off to Vienna at the last minute, followed by random train trips and otherwise to points across Europe? During this “mission,” both Audrey and Morgan are shown to kill people, yet are able to brush it off like pros? Is this film about awakening dormant skills necessary for espionage? Per-maybe-haps, but the script by Susanna Fogel and David Iserson mires it in stereotypes and hammy romantic comedy clichés. The out-of-nowhere, chemistry-less sparks between Audrey and Sebastian are only there to keep us guessing if he’s playing her or fighting for the right side.
There’s a fair bit of discomforting gross-out moments – some subtle, others less so. We’re given uncomfortable massages, forced gag/vomit scenes, a big fart joke (which, in fairness, pays off confusingly well), and the aforementioned male genitalia for added (dis)pleasure. In context, all of it fits. However, since The Spy Who Dumped Me vacillates quickly between spy, parody, romance, and action genres, there is no context. It’s a largely superficial film with a lot of attempts at making the audience laugh, but true comedy comes from a deeper, more nuanced place. (I laughed out loud exactly four times in what’s supposed to be a comedy film. Go figure.)
Maybe if the film didn’t make halfhearted attempts to force comedy into situations where it’s not necessary, we’d have a more streamlined, focused picture. As it stands, The Spy Who Dumped Me is a head-scratching curiosity, straddling the lines between identities about as often as the film’s intelligence operatives do. Viewed as a female empowerment vehicle, it hits the mark while taking time to have fun with Audrey and Morgan’s friendship. They elevate each other wonderfully, and they at least provide a sense of grounding for the shenanigans which fly like so many bullets around them. No one’s expecting this to be an Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne film; instead, it could be the beginning of the Audrey and Morgan saga, with hopefully better sequels in the future.