If there’s a major takeaway from The Spy Who Dumped Me, another late-August buddy action comedy from the studio that brought you last summer’s sleeper hit The Hitman’s Bodyguard, it’s that Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon make a very likeable team. As best friends Audrey and Morgan, they’ve got some very nice chemistry going in the midst of a non-starter of a movie.
At the start of the film, they’re commiserating over Audrey’s dickish boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) dumping her by text, the week before her birthday. On the night of her party, just as she and Morgan are about to burn his remaining possessions, he gets back in touch and inadvertently brings a bunch of international espionage down on their heads. Among his other foibles, Drew is a CIA agent on the run from his bosses and a bevy of assassins, dropping the two friends into a dangerous mission to deliver a crucial McGuffin across Europe.
The film is directed and co-written by Susanna Fogel. Having previously made the romantic comedy Life Partners, this follow-up is Fogel’s deliberate effort to avoid being boxed in as a filmmaker. As a career move, it certainly shows her range as a director, bringing a story about female friendship into the realm of an R-rated action comedy, but sadly, the film isn’t so remarkable.
As reviewers have remarked since its Stateside release earlier this month, it’s tonally all over the place. While it treads the well-covered spy spoof territory, its use of violence soars right past the Bond movies’ high watermark of Casino Royale in the first ten minutes and nestles itself in the lower echelons of a Liam Neeson thriller. Most of these spy comedies aren’t quite so violent, and over the course of this film’s running time, it’s not very hard to see why.
While we’re no prudes about screen violence, it’s the way in which the film springs violence on the audience that really jars. For the most part, it’s an energetic accidental spy caper, but the brutal deaths and injury detail are more chilling than chucklesome. If it’s not being played straight, there’s a crippling absence of comic timing to the sudden extreme bloody moments, which pepper the film like machine gun fire through the skull of a random funny character you actually quite liked.
The characters take it all in their stride because it’s that kind of studio comedy, but this blasé nasty streak leaves it feeling really disjointed. The leads hold the fort pretty well, generously complementing each other’s character development, but the tone is too misplaced for them to truly elevate it. To give credit where it’s due though, Kunis is a really great foil for McKinnon, in that rare comedy that plays wholly on the Saturday Night Live star’s puckish screen presence rather than resorting to cutting to her reactions between the other characters’ jokes.
Co-written by Fogel and David Iserson, the script isn’t so slight as to leave the film leaning on improvised bits, but it still feels light on laughs. Short of some amusing stunt work by Ivanna Sakhno’s deadly assassin, a Ukrainian gymnast who uses gymnastics equipment to murder her prey in a more distinctly Bond-flavoured turn, and a truly inspired sight gag involving someone’s thumb, it’s difficult to say that there are many other hilarious moments.
While Paul Reiser and Jane Curtin have a scene-stealing extended cameo as Morgan’s exceptionally unflappable parents, their appearances feel like the most intact of the running gags. Elsewhere, the convoluted spy mystery plot is by-numbers and uninvolving, which wouldn’t matter so much if the comedy was hitting harder. Marooned in the middle of these arcs is Gillian Anderson, whose thankless background role might as well be a reprisal of her exact part from Johnny English Reborn.
Despite a few fun set-pieces and a thoroughly watchable double act in the centre of it all, The Spy Who Dumped Me is an uneven affair, and as a result, the biggest laughs elude it. We’d say that Fogel has definitively broken out of the indie set with this action comedy, and for all the over-egging of the fights and chase scenes, it is well directed. Sadly, it too often feels like the right vehicle, veering off in the wrong direction.
The Spy Who Dumped Me is in UK cinemas now.