Action-comedies tend to favor comedy over action, but Susanna Fogel’s new buddy flick The Spy Who Dumped Me reverses that trend. The R-rated film commits to its bone-crunching, blood-spurting action scenes to the point where they sometimes feel like they were lifted wholesale from a Bourne film. The Spy Who Dumped Me mines its comedy not so much from wacky setpieces (although there are some of those), but from the realistic, flummoxed way its non-spy characters react when thrust into a world of violent espionage. It’s a fun conceit for an action-comedy, but unfortunately, The Spy Who Dumped Me often winds up feeling like the first draft of a much better film.
The film introduces its unusual tonal balance during an opening sequence that juxtaposes a high-pressure spy mission in Lithuania with a low-key birthday party in Los Angeles. Despite the best efforts of her kooky best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon), lost-in-life slacker Audrey (Mila Kunis) is having trouble enjoying her birthday given that she’s just been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux). Of course, the film’s title gives away the fact that Drew is actually a spy, not the mild-mannered NPR host Audrey thinks he is. While Audrey wallows at her birthday party, Drew uses his particular set of skills to complete a dangerous CIA mission with little more than his wits and whatever Lithuanian household items he can grab.
Working with cinematographer Barry Peterson (Game Night, 21 Jump Street), Fogel immediately establishes her skills as an action director. The Lithuania-set opening sequence is brutal, visceral, and visually compelling. That continues throughout the film’s many action sequences, which unfold once Drew ropes Audrey into helping him with his international mission and Morgan volunteers herself as Audrey’s sidekick. There’s some tension in the fact that the film wants you to both invest in the horror of its violence and remain detached enough to laugh at it. On the other hand, it’s kind of fascinating to watch a film actually dig into that tension, rather than just tactfully elide it like so many similarly violent but less bloody PG-13 action films. It’s also nice to watch a big-budget action movie where characters are allowed to realistically swear.
As has been the trend in Hollywood as of late, The Spy Who Dumped Me anchors itself around a female friendship steeped not in petty rivalries, but in deep-seated love. In fact, the film gets a lot of comedic mileage out of just how much Audrey and Morgan care for one another — at one point, Morgan refuses to continue with their makeshift mission until Audrey fully accepts a compliment about her skills as a pseudo-spy. McKinnon and Kunis have an easy chemistry together, to the point where it sometimes seems like their characters’ fits of laughter might just be the actors themselves cracking up. Fogel (who co-wrote the film with David Iserson) also takes time to slow things down and add just a bit of emotional depth to Audrey and Morgan’s bond. In addition to the Bourne-esque action and the Spy-esque comedy, Fogel taps into the more low-key humor of her 2014 film Life Partners, which is also about female friendship. McKinnon and Kunis both handle the little bit of emotional heft they’re given with aplomb; it’s just too bad there isn’t more of it.
Unfortunately, The Spy Who Dumped Me struggles to tell a story as compelling as its two leads. The film follows Audrey and Morgan as they hop across Europe while chasing MacGuffins, avoiding bad guys, and trying to figure out who they can actually trust. It’s the kind of film that either needs way more plot or way less. The spy storytelling doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny, but the film also wastes way too much time discussing flash drives, secret organizations, and double crosses. Similarly, the film probably needed to spend either more or less time with its male leads, including not only Theroux but also Outlander’s Sam Heughan as a British spy whose motives are up for question. As the characters pile up (Gillian Anderson and Hasan Minhaj also have small roles) and the plot grows more complicated, the film becomes frustratingly muddled. It doesn’t help that there’s no compelling central villain around which to anchor all those convoluted spy games.
All of that would be less of a problem if the film were a little funnier. In an interview for Vulture, Fogel discusses the difference between what she calls “micro comedy” (i.e. written jokes and one-liners) and “macro comedy” (i.e. ineffable moments that are only funny because the actors at the center of them are inherently funny). The Spy Who Dumped Me definitely favors the macro over the micro, which is both a strength and a weakness. McKinnon, in particular, steals the show as Morgan (an aspiring actor) begins adopting needlessly strange personas throughout the mission. But The Spy Who Dumped Me probably could’ve used a more rigid comedic structure to fortify its sloppy plotting and to give both Audrey and her potential British paramour a bit more personality.
To be fair, there are some good gags throughout the film — particularly one involving a stick shift — and for the first hour or so, its unique tone and winning leads keep things clipping along. However, The Spy Who Dumped Me loses steam in its back half and builds to a rather lackluster climax. (The film’s trailers hint at a much more compelling finale than the one actually offered.) The Spy Who Dumped Me runs just shy of two hours, and likely would’ve benefitted from losing about 30 minutes, although Fogel thankfully doesn’t let any of the individual improvisational beats run too long.
To put it bluntly, The Spy Who Dumped Me is the sort of film you enjoy while watching it, and probably won’t think about much again afterwards. That doesn’t make it a bad film (it got some hearty belly laughs at the early screening throughout), it just doesn’t make it a great one either. As an escape from the August heat or an action comedy to catch on TV one Sunday afternoon, there are plenty of pleasures to be had. But with hints of an even better movie lurking around its edges, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed that The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t totally complete its mission.