While there’s no shortage of propulsive action set-pieces at the box office this summer, none pull off a more satisfying bait-and-switch than the adrenaline-pumping opening of The Spy Who Dumped Me. Justin Theroux’s CIA operative, suited and tense, is pursued through the streets of Lithuania by shadowy assailants who want the vital intelligence he’s carrying on a thumb drive.
So far, so Bourne – but Theroux’s Drew is in fact a footnote in this story, which soon pivots with effervescent ease to focus on his spurned girlfriend Audrey (Mila Kunis) and her ride-or-die best friend Morgan (a reliably mesmerising Kate McKinnon).
Having already been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend – who she thought worked in radio – Audrey is soon also saddled with his life-threatening mission, which sends her and Morgan off on a high-stakes globe-trot with various gangsters, MI6 and law enforcement all hot on their tail. Both characters know they’re wildly unqualified for this; the movie very literally plucks them out of a romcom in LA and drops them into the middle of a spy narrative in Vienna, and this genre mishmash proves truly entertaining thanks to a sharply observed script and winning performances.
It’s no secret by this point that McKinnon is a firecracker of a comedian, and her irrepressible off-kilter charisma is by far the standout element here, with Kunis playing the nonetheless appealing straight woman. As the pair make their way around Europe in a delirious rush of car chases, narrow escapes and hand-to-hand combat situations, it’s Morgan’s alarming zeal for adventure that keeps things from becoming incoherent; so long as she’s on board, so are we.
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And though Audrey’s breakup is the catalyst, it’s Morgan’s vulnerabilities that emerge in the most compelling and surprising ways. For all her bravado, she’s a misfit, and McKinnon excels at playing her charm alongside her profound social awkwardness. One of the film’s most emotionally smart moments comes when Drew – who we come to learn was not a particularly great guy even before the dumping – casually tells Morgan she’s “a little much”. It’s unexpectedly cutting, and gets at something profound about how men can undermine women.
Writer-director Susanna Fogel’s last film was the little-seen but delightful Life Partners, a low-key comedy about two female best friends whose intensely close relationship changes when one stops being single. Despite now being on a blockbuster scale and a studio budget, Fogel brings the same level of detail and warmth to Audrey and Morgan’s bond, and it’s such a pure joy to see a well-developed female friendship at the centre of a movie in this genre that you can forgive a lot of its other flabbiness and flaws. There’s a repetitive quality to much of the action in the second and third acts, and the endless litany of jarring violence eventually becomes numbing, which is bad news for any comedy.
The supporting characters, too, are a mixed bag: Outlander’s Sam Heughan is extremely handsome as the antiheroic MI6 agent Sebastian, but since his entire purpose is to serve as a potential new love interest for Audrey, he’s superfluous. The movie is clearly only interested in one love story, and you end up wishing that Fogel and her writing partner David Iserson had the guts – or the creative freedom – to simply have their leading ladies end up together, platonically or otherwise. As it is, the ending feels like a slightly overstuffed compromise, wrapping up the semi-nonsensical espionage plot while undermining the central friendship with a romantic climax nobody asked for.
But there are other supporting players who more than earn their place alongside McKinnon and Kunis – most significantly chief female villain Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno), a Russian catwalk model and gymnast who moonlights as an assassin. Her relentless pursuit of the pair culminates in a gloriously insane physical confrontation with McKinnon during a Cirque du Soleil performance, proving once and for all that McKinnon is game for anything. There’s also a small but satisfying turn from Gillian Anderson as an unflappable MI6 chief with whom Morgan is besotted; someone needs to greenlight a spin-off focused entirely on this dynamic.
An unabashedly female-first action-comedy is a rare thing, and The Spy Who Dumped Me skilfully blends the subtle with the unsubtle, marrying outlandish action with resonant character humour.
- Release date: Out now (US)/August 22, 2018 (UK)
- Certificate: R (US)/15 (UK)
- Running time: 117 mins