Are the best movies the ones you will remember decades after seeing them? Or the ones that cajole, entertain and provide immediate gratification? How you answer that will determine how much you like “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” Maybe you can already guess from the title.
Not brilliant but rarely boring, this is the sort of midmarket comedy that takes you to lots of places you’ve been before but describes it all like a clever, amusing tour guide. It assumes the premise that being romantically abandoned by a secret agent with international killers on his trail can really mess up your life. Well, duh.
That’s the predicament faced by Audrey (Mila Kunis), a nice, nondescript woman who works as a cashier in a health foods store. Her magnetic if secretive boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) hasn’t been returning her texts. After we see him running through a shoot-fight-bomb battle in Lithuania, it’s easy to understand why: He doesn’t want enemy agents to know they’re a pair. Or he’s busy. Or dead.
She gets sympathy from her best friend, Morgan (Kate McKinnon), a saucy feminist who knows how to karaoke a pity party into a funny night out. And when Audrey learns that Drew doesn’t have the job he claims — making exceptionally boring podcasts for NPR — Morgan joins her on a run to Vienna.
Once there, with no-good villains at her heels, she must deliver a secret thingumajig to someone named Verne. This is a very big deal for a pair with a lack of lifetime accomplishments, zooming all across Europe for the first time, fleeing motorcyclists with machine guns. But they’re good at learning from experience. Plus, Audrey’s favorite arcade game involves shooting at the screen with a plastic pistol, so she’s got that going for her.
Punchlines and slapstick ensue, along with outbursts of R-rated violence, some of which is deliberately chuckle-worthy, if you don’t mind a bloody impaling now and then. At times this seems like inventive filmmaking, satirizing B-movie ultraviolence by shoving an extra large serving at us. But other times it feels as if the filmmakers didn’t know when to stop. Brutality can be transgressive and can trigger shocked laughs in the proper doses, but it’s a poor running gag. There is a death-by-fondue moment here that could have come from a “Saw” movie.
The film is directed and co-written by TV veteran Susanna Fogel (creator of the series “Chasing Life”). Even though it imposes an acid sense of humor that raises the material beyond standard lightweight girls’ comedy fluff, it carries the aura of sketch comedy.
Which is not to say it’s fatally flawed. There are some real humdingers here, usually coming from unexpected directions. As a sucker for highbrow stuff, I loved a raunchy double entendre about Balzac. An out-of-nowhere bit about Austria selling tourist caps that feature a portrait of Mozart but ignore its most modern claim to fame is great. As is the idea that the Cheesecake Factory menu was written by just the right Eastern European author.
The way it introduces a demolition-derby car chase across the old city’s narrow streets, throws in an interesting footnote character and then writes him out is inspired. And the surprise appearance by a key figure of recent real-world spy skulduggery is smart, wonderfully designed lunacy.
There’s a rich supporting cast popping in every now and then to keep things moving. Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser play Morgan’s parents, lifesaving sources of inside information and crucial advice, though they’re both turning a little dotty in old age. Guthrie veteran “A Serious Man’s” Fred Melamed plays a too-warm family friend of Morgan’s parents, hosting the ladies on a very awkward overnight stay at his château.
Theroux draws on his inherent unlikability. He has had a full career as a character actor of jerks, and scores well again here. But where the free-flowing story line comes up short is that the leading characters aren’t equally iconic. Audrey and Morgan are standard-issue types, even though they’re saying and doing unusual things.
As the more serious of the two BFFs, Kunis (“Bad Moms’) is well within her play-it-straight comfort zone, being the (not entirely) levelheaded member of the team. When Audrey is put upon, it’s almost automatic to feel for the poor, vulnerable waif. But the role is two-dimensional at best. By the finale she’s giving as good as she gets in her confrontations with the villains, yet it’s hard to believe that she’s evolved.
“Saturday Night Live’s” McKinnon is a comic force of nature, and she plays Morgan on her own goofy wavelength. The levels of implication she slides into her girl crush on the top MI6 officer played by Gillian Anderson (“I have so much respect for you that it’s circled around to objectification”) is like watching a champion play three-dimensional chess. Even her cutaway reaction shots during the action scenes are well played.
But Fogel’s tendency to overplay a good hand strikes again, drawing out a Cirque de Soleil-style trapeze scene involving her and a Russian femme fatale beyond the limits of human patience. Athletic physical comedy isn’t McKinnon’s natural gift. Although I wouldn’t bet against her if she tried. The best part of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is that it gives McKinnon her first full co-starring role. Here’s hoping she goes higher very fast.