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Film Reviews Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me is a smart idea for a movie, but the jokes run out early

Sam Heughan as Sebastian, Mila Kunis as Audrey and Kate McKinnon as Morgan in The Spy Who Dumped Me.

Hopper Stone

  • The Spy Who Dumped Me
  • Directed by: Susanna Fogel
  • Written by: Susanna Fogel and David Iserson
  • Starring: Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon
  • Classification: 14A; 116 minutes

rating

Apparently, M was not firm enough. As the overseer of MI6, the wonderful Judi Dench did her damndest to kick the macho stuffing out of the Bond franchise in the 2000s but it’s going to take some more tugging to wrench the spy movie away from the patriarchy. Inserting powerful female characters into the genre can only go so far; indeed, the icy female spy boss who dresses down her male agents has become something of a cliché.

So, if you can never truly join them, you can mock them: These pseudo-serious fantasies of suave men and beautiful women have always been ripe for more overt satire than their own little jokes permit, creating an entire spy-comedy sub-genre. And there, female comics are stepping up, volunteering to tread boldly where Austin Powers has gone before.

Melissa McCarthy got things rolling with 2015’s Spy, in which she played a dumpy, desk-bound CIA officer suddenly thrown into a foreign mission. Now another two reliably funny women, Mila Kunis (Family Guy and the Bad Moms movies) and Kate McKinnon (of Saturday Night Live fame plus Ghostbusters), give it a shot. In The Spy Who Dumped Me, they play a pair of more-or-less nice American girls who stumble into an international espionage conspiracy after a departing boyfriend leaves a mysterious package in their apartment.

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Writers David Iserson and Susanna Fogel, who also directs, have clear and lofty ambitions here. With Kunis’s sly comic talents providing a foil for the wacky wonders that McKinnon offers, they want to make a comedy entirely driven by its female leads. They also want to create a genuinely thrilling action movie full of car chases, gunfire and explosions. And they aim to show how these things go hand in hand; how the women can simultaneously power the action and undercut it. Initially, they succeed admirably, but ultimately they flounder as the movie runs out of plot and jokes well before the end of a two-hour running time, long for a light comedy.

In The Spy Who Dumped Me, McKinnon and Kunis play a pair of more-or-less nice American girls who stumble into an international espionage conspiracy.

Hopper Stone/SMPSP

Kunis plays Audrey, a sensitive singleton trying to recover from the boyfriend who dumped her in a text message, with much help from her unrestrained best friend Morgan. (That would be McKinnon.) Unbeknownst to the women, the boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) is a CIA agent who is being pursued by various villains for a file of secret information that he has left back in Audrey’s Los Angeles apartment along with his dirty underwear. The juxtaposition is nicely established in the opening sequence where Audrey and Morgan bemoan the perfidy of men in their local bar while Drew is chased across the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, leaving a trail of bullets and broken balcony railings behind him.

His dying instructions to Audrey are to take the package to a drop in Austria. As Audrey and Morgan crawl across the floor of a swank Viennese café, discovering that their hard-shell suitcase is bullet-proof while a dozen male agents go down in a hail of gunfire, you have to love the way Fogel simultaneously plays the violence for its entertainment value and exposes its idiocy. An equally satisfying car chase ensues in which the women convince a cab driver on meth to evade their pursuers long enough that Morgan can actually get her seatbelt done up.

The difficulty is that Fogel hasn’t got enough plot here to keep things going at this smart pace. Even by the standards of a spy comedy, The Spy Who Dumped Me’s wafer-thin storyline makes precious little sense. Good guys and bad guys become indistinguishable in a chase for the package that may or may not provide information about a dastardly terrorist plot. As these shape-shifting characters alternately protect and betray our heroines, Fogel and Iserson’s cleverness trips them up: their girl-power theme is that you can never trust a man, but that often leaves the espionage plot in such unstable territory, it’s impossible to follow. Doing his best to appear non-committal but not unpleasant, Sam Heughan co-stars as a British agent of dubious motivations.

It’s the chillingly restrained Ivana Sakhno, playing a sadistic young Eastern European gymnast and trained assassin, who finally emerges as the real villain. A scene where Audrey and Morgan try to talk her out of torturing them by engaging her in girly chitchat breathes some much needed life back into the movie’s initial premise, but she’s not a figure who drives the story, so she can’t rescue it.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s obnoxious assertiveness is so often-repeated and overplayed by McKinnon it begins to wear thin, leaving Kunis’s Audrey overshadowed and adrift. Then the script itself runs out of good jokes: you know comedy writers are in trouble when their humour repeatedly heads for the bathroom.

Fogel’s failure to sustain The Spy Who Dumped Me is a frustrating thing because her idea is so smart. The first person in the title of the 1977 Roger Moore movie The Spy Who Loved Me, from which this satire takes its name, was always false; there is no legitimate female perspective in any classic Bond, or any Bourne. But it looks like reclaiming that “me” is going to need more work.

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