Written and Directed by Susanna Fogel
Starring Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux
Runtime: 1 hour and 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language throughout, some crude sexual material and graphic nudity
by Hunter Bush
The Spy Who Dumped Me, as you may be able to tell, is a spy action/comedy that is living its best life when leaning on what sets it apart from the spy action movies it is ostensibly lampooning. As a spy movie, TSWDM is only so-so, featuring the obligatory globe-hopping location changes, "trust no one" attitude and face/heel turns the genre has worn into the ground. On the other hand, as a buddy comedy with two female leads, it soars.
Mila Kunis is no stranger to comedy, starting with her role as the lovable spoiled brat Jackie on That 70's Show, which she spun into roles in a variety of features, from pretty-good rom-com also-ran Get Over It to really-took-a-shot sci-fi-epic Jupiter Ascending to existential-identity-crisis nightmare Black Swan, but she's never strayed far from comedy, voicing near-constant punching bag Meg Griffin on Family Guy. However I may feel about any of her credits, she's always come across as someone with more discerning taste in projects. Performance-wise, I'm generally a fan of her as the knowing straight-woman archetype, an anchor for the wacky antics of some outside force or person.
In The Spy Who Dumped Me, that person is Kate McKinnon and as much as I love their on-screen chemistry both comedically and personally, I am of the opinion that you could pair McKinnon with almost anyone up to and including a cardboard cutout of herself and they'd be considered the Abbott & Costello of the twentyteens. That's not to disparage her partnership with Kunis in any way. In fact, I'd be happy if they kept making films opposite one another until the sun burned out. Here, McKinnon plays Kunis' boisterous best friend, the one who sings an elaborate, vampy version of “Happy Birthday” (using a microphone she may or may not have brought from home) and encourages Kunis to burn the stuff her titular ex left at her apartment.
The whole cast is pretty good, featuring a well-mixed group of recognizable faces and relative unknowns. Justin Theroux is Drew, the ex-boyfriend spy of the title and he's...fine. A cut & paste James Bond archetype, he primarily exists just to set the plot in motion and then disappear, which (again) is...fine. Kunis & McKinnon end up on a desperate last-minute scramble from L.A. to Vienna to hand off a sports trophy plot MacGuffin, alternately working with and running from some of Drew's spy co-workers because "Don't trust anyone". Sam Heughan and Hasan Minhaj play the fellow spies, only distinguishable from one another because Minhaj constantly mentions he went to Harvard. There's also Gillian Anderson playing their boss, Ivanna Sakhno playing a failed gymnast-turned-assassin working for a rival agency and even appearances from Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser (excellent stunt casting!).
My problem with The Spy Who Dumped Me is that I don't think it could decide how to be an action-slash-comedy and for the most part settles for vacillating between the two: the comedy scenes don't pack a lot of punch and the action scenes don't have a lot of laughs. The exception is an action-packed car chase sequence through the streets of Vienna that is also completely hilarious! It even manages to make a relatively tired underhand pitch of a joke about lame European DJs work! The comedy half of the equation for that sequence is, of course, Kunis & McKinnon, with the addition of French comedian Kev Adams, but the action works thanks to an extensive stunt team led by stunt coordinators Gary Powell & Domonkos Pardanyi. Of the many action sequences in TSWDM, the car chase is the only one that worked for me on both action and comedy levels. Others either leaned too far into shtick or else were just your regular-degular action sequences: Theroux using found objects to whoop ass in a Lithuanian market for instance. While these were all entertaining, the fluctuating tone detracted from my overall enjoyment of the movie.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: The Spy Who Dumped Me is coming out just one week after Fallout, the latest in the 22-years running Mission:Impossible franchise, a movie that is garnering rave reviews (and not just from the MJ staff) and frankly, TSWDM pales in comparison... as a spy movie. If Imagine Ent. / Lionsgate wanted it to really stand out, it should have leaned a little heavier on what sets it apart: that it’s a buddy comedy between two female leads! The relationship dynamic between Kunis' reliable Audrey and McKinnon's wild child Morgan is rare in buddy comedies in that the two never really butt heads. When Audrey decides the two *need* to do something, Morgan is 100% on-board and the most push-back any of Morgan's more left-field ideas warrants is a "this may not be the best idea" type comment. In most buddy comedies, the two parties have a falling out; in TSWDM their relationship's third act swing is a reaffirmation that they're legitimate besties.
That is what The Spy Who Dumped Me needs more of. What it could do without is the rote, genre-beholden cliches that run rampant in the spy half of the story, the kind of "spy-movies-do-this-so-we-will-too" storytelling that makes me glaze over.
Fair warning, I'm about to spoil a reveal from The Spy Who Dumped Me, but it absolutely doesn't matter to the overall film, so don't worry about it.
At one point, after believing we've sorted out the whole who-wanted-the-MacGuffin-and-why, it is revealed that there is one more upper-echelon baddie pulling the strings. At no point was discovering this person's identity any kind of a goal and absolutely no stakes are attached to it, but the one time we hear them speak over the phone, they're using a voice-changer so you just *know* it's gonna be a surprise of some kind. That means it's either a celebrity cameo or a character we've already seen but thought was a good guy. So...it's Justin Theroux (Drew), back from the dead. He tries to woo Audrey back, then he tries the "I'm-not-the-bad-guy-he-is" cliche with Sam Heughan and it's just...so toothless. It doesn't change anything about Theroux's character, or reinforce any particular theme in the film; it doesn't add anything to TSWDM as a whole, it just waters it down. It feels like writer/director Susanna Fogel (along with co-writer David Iserson) added it because they'd reached Chapter 19 in "How to Write a Spy Movie": The Villain is Revealed as a Former Ally. Remember that this is the Big Finish: it's the finale of the movie your audience has been watching to almost two hours; the end of your main character's emotional arc *and* the final action set-piece of your story. It better matter and it better work.
You may or may not know me from Twitter where my handle is Dr. H Bus, well I'm going to slip into “Script Doctor H Bus” mode for a moment here. If we (the audience) need to be surprised by Drew's heel turn, we need to believe that he's not just an Alright Guy, but that he's the absolute last guy you'd expect to be a villain, but we don't. We're introduced to his character knowing that he's a spy and that he dumped Audrey via text. Doesn't sound so hot to me. Throughout the movie, we see flashbacks to their meet-cute, but that just enforces that they had chemistry, not that he's a Good Guy. If this twist reveal was supposed to work, this movie needed more of their relationship in it to make us care about it.
And now, here is my own twist: I think *that* would have been an even bigger mistake. Fuck Drew. As a friend of mine (who saw an audience pre-screening of TSWDM) said: "This movie shouldn't be about him. The title can be about him. The movie is about (Audrey & Morgan)." She is 100% on the ball (Hi, Nicole!). I think devoting any more of the movie to Drew as a character is an absolutely useless endeavor. Drew was never important. In a shocking reversal of gender cliches, he's essentially the dead wife/girlfriend that sets the whole plot in motion. To have a movie that pays a lot of lip service to sisterhood and strong female character themes come so close to actualizing that and then trip up is a big disappointment.
The Spy Who Dumped Me isn't a bad time, by any means. It's full of laughs and entertaining action but doesn't manage to balance them well enough. The final product has definite signs of rewrites (bookend sequences that each feature the type of "it-looks-like-a-pen-but-it's-not" spy gadgets, which don't otherwise appear in the rest of the movie for instance) and a serious paint-by-numbers feel to it, but these minor quibbles don't do too much to ruin the heart of the film.
I'd recommend you see TSWDM for the Mila/Kate chemistry and to support this type of gal pal buddy comedy, but if you really want your action comedy itch scratched, I'd recommend Game Night from earlier this year which sticks the landing a whole lot better.