Like many actresses of their generation, Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon are often too good for the films they feature in. It is the fate of women acting in a world filled with stories predominantly written and directed by men to be underutilized and misunderstood as artists and performers. Both Kunis and McKinnon have starred in plenty of entertaining movies—Jupiter Ascending and Ghostbusters, respectively, come to mind—but The Spy Who Dumped Me may be the first feature film that fully makes use of their broad talents across the comedic and dramatic spectrum, and you better believe that has something to do with the fact it was co-written and directed by a woman.
Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me is yet another entry in a long line of Hollywood spy films, sure, but all of its best moments come in the far less frequently represented female friendship at its core. Kunis plays Audrey, a 30-year-old Trader Joe’s employee who has just been dumped via text by Drew (Justin Theroux). She’s heartbroken and embarrassed, but far from broken. She has other people in her life—namely, her supportive, eccentric actress best friend Morgan (McKinnon). When the ex, who turns out to be a spy, entrusts Audrey with a MacGuffin in the form of a second place Fantasy Football trophy, and tells her she needs to get it to Vienna, Audrey sets off on a whirlwind tour of the European continent with Morgan by her side, complete with assassination attempts, torture scenarios, and severed thumbs that undermines every rule spy films usually have concerning their female characters.
While this movie may be a spy film, it also shares DNA with travel films as varied as EuroTrip and Eat Pray Love, following a classic coming-of-age or (second coming-of-age) formula that is integral to that genre. Fogel talked to Den of Geek about how this movie is made for modern women who are settling down later and thinking of their female friends as family, and the prioritization of the female experience outside of romantic relationships is one of The Spy Who Dumped Me‘s greatest strengths, as female characters in spy films are all too often confined by their role as a sex and/or love object. Audrey in particular has romantic subplots but she is never defined by them.
The picture is not about a Smurfette-like lone wolf succeeding in a man’s world, a la Atomic Blonde, but rather about two women who draw power from their friendship and the traditionally feminine qualities they possess in a much-needed subversion of not only the spy genre, but most studio fare. Audrey and Morgan’s character arcs are not organized along the traditionally masculine journeys of revenge, vengeance, or honor. Audrey’s growth takes place in relation to the world’s constant underestimation of her talents—a pattern of assumptions Audrey herself is not immune to.
As for Morgan, who has been called “a little much” for her entire life and who doesn’t always play by the accepted rules of femininity, she finds power in the “extra” social space she inhabits. They both have one another’s support every step of the way. Much like underrepresented healthy female friendships that exist in real life (mainstream movies, predominantly written by men, tend to play up the manipulative nature of toxic female friendship), Audrey and Morgan’s relationship is never a source of tension. Female audience members will no doubt be grateful to watch a movie in which the female characters don’t solely exist within the framework of uncertain will-they-or-won’t-they romantic dynamics and catty female friendships, but rather have the stability of the unwavering support of a best friend.
The film lulls in its action-driven moments, not because the action is incompetently done, but because we’ve seen it all before and done better—in the best of male-centered franchises like the Bourne and Mission: Impossible films. The bumbling, yet competent everywomen Audrey and Morgan are the new element here, and the movie flounders whenever they are off the screen, despite solid performances from Sam Heughan as the James Bond-esque Sebastian Henshaw, Hasan Minhaj as his arrogant partner Duffer, and Gillian Anderson as their MI6 boss Wendy. Like the rest of the movie, their scenes are much more interesting when they dial down the plot and dial up the comedic gags. Anderson is particularly good as an exasperated female authority figure trying to wrangle her male underlings.
The balance of violence and comedy in The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t always work. Every viewer has their subjective level of tolerance when it comes to balancing these two elements, but The Spy Who Dumped Me is often clunky in its transitions from gruesome violence, especially enacted on innocent bystanders, to silly mayhem. The film asks us to care about the emotional journeys of Audrey and Morgan, but to turn that empathy meter down when it comes to the annoying, but well-intentioned Uber-driver-slash-DJ who is unwittingly pulled into their espionage game to unfortunate results. Still, in a media landscape and world in which violence is often enacted on women, it’s refreshing to watch a movie in which we never really worry about its female leads getting seriously hurt because, unlike most films, they are the stars of this movie.
The Spy Who Dumped Me fails to stretch its subversive elements to other aspects of the genre, missing an opportunity to pay satirical homage to the spy film using more than just the lens of gender. While The Spy Who Dumped Me is excellent in its use of female friendship to tell a new kind of spy story, it falls back on lazy stereotypes of Eastern European and Russian spy archetypes that is particularly disappointing in a film that features a Ukranian-American actress as its star. Audrey and Morgan are plagued by Russian assassin Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) who is defined by her uncaring brutality and her love of gymnastics. The character, while charismatic, feels more like a cariacture than anything else.
The Spy Who Dumped Me arguably tries to be too many things—a buddy comedy, a spy film, a European travel adventure—and doesn’t fully succeed at all of them, but it does succeed where it needs to by constructing a central female friendship that makes viewers both laugh and care. And by putting that successful element inside of a buddy spy comedy travel adventure, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t just offer audiences a hell of a fun, escapist ride, it offers moviegoers something they have never seen before. In a summer studio schedule rife with redundant, if not well-executed fare (which, save for this film and The Darkest Minds, is entirely directed by men), that’s something incredibly, frustratingly rare.