Watching Kate McKinnon in Susanna Fogel’s frenetic action-comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me, you can get a bead on her peculiar genius. She’s not an actress, not even a conventional clown. She’s a Terminator. Jerky, glassy-eyed, driven by an energy source we’ll never fathom but know enough to worship, she fires off one-liner after one-liner, apparently indifferent to whether it lands or flies into the ether — there will always be another.
In Spy, McKinnon is Morgan, the best friend of the title’s “me,” Audrey (Mila Kunis), but she’s too bananas to play a second banana. Morgan is supposed to be an actress and drama-camp vet, of the sort I used to see (when I went to drama camp) standing at the piano singing songs from A Chorus Line. (Now it would be Rent or Hamilton.) But McKinnon didn’t remind me of those girls. She’s too manic and speed-freaky, too indifferent to applause. Applause couldn’t catch up with her. With her deconstructive digs at aggressive masculinity and loopy brand of feminism (“Women can be terrorists, too. We can do anything we put our minds to!”), she’s ten stutter steps ahead of everyone, including the nominal heroine.
The movie has a terrific first half — lickety-split but with plenty of time (thanks to McKinnon’s velocity) for lunatic asides. The bright screenplay (by Fogel and David Iserson) has Audrey learning that Drew (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of a year, was a James Bond–like agent and virtuosic killer shortly after he breaks up with her via text message. What she doesn’t know when texting him back is that he’s in the midst of stabbing, braining, and breaking the necks of a steady stream of assassins — or that he has left a vital MacGuffin in Audrey’s apartment.
The film’s gimmick is that when Drew is put out of commission, Audrey and Morgan decide to bring the MacGuffin (on which millions of lives allegedly depend) to Vienna, where they’re besieged by a similar horde of assassins as well as a pair of spies: dreamy Brit, Sebastian (Sam Heughan), from MI6 and CIA know-it-all, Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), whose running gag is that he can’t go two minutes without telling someone he went to Harvard. (On behalf of my fellow Harvard graduates, I protest this stereotype!) There’s a good extended bit when Morgan pretends to be a Chinese man (it’s not racist, trust me) and a great punch line at the expense of a felled Uber driver. In one scene, a supermodel assassin (Ivanna Sakhno) with unnervingly sharp cheekbones is ordered to pick off a “pair of stupid American girls” in a crowded plaza, but everywhere she looks there are pairs of girls in clothes and attitudes that scream “stupid Americans.”
The most surprising aspect of The Spy Who Dumped Me is the level of violence. It’s hard R, with kinetic splatter, the wince-inducing sounds of cracking bones, and a special treat: a face boiled in cheese fondue. My guess is Fogel, in common with her heroines, didn’t want to hear that she “hits like a girl.” She hits like no one this side of John Wick.
But it’s tough to sustain a story line this thin for two hours, and the movie runs down at the two-thirds mark. Fogel spends too much time setting you up for spectacular but only semi-coherent climax, set in and around a Cirque du Soleil performance. It’s full of gore and flashy stunts but never finds a rhythm, and you might be pissed off to discover that the plot has been chasing its own tail. (Filmmakers should at least pretend that their MacGuffins make sense.) There’s plenty to hold you, though. Fred Melamed turns up as a horny doctor who leans in close to McKinnon to ask if she’s “into Balzac.” (“Less and less with every experience.”) Gillian Anderson gets some laughs as a dryly dismissive intelligence chief. (Her expression never changes.) Justin Theroux is a witty minimalist, evoking legions of espionage action movies in a single pose.
And then there’s the doe-eyed face-puller Kunis, who only rises above blandness in her scenes with McKinnon. The good news is she rises amazingly high. In wonderful jabbering duets she almost keeps up, and she’s smart enough to turn that almost into a great joke, a farcical imperative. Who could keep up with McKinnon’s nutbird rantings? You can only take a deep breath and plunge into the maelstrom.