More than once, the female heroines in Paul Feig’s comedies are accused of getting too emotional. A heinous example comes in 2013’s The Heat, when good cop/bad cop partners Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) are verbally accosted by a male colleague after a botched sting operation: “We don’t need the two of you coming in with your estrogen and flying at full speed, sticking out in the middle of broad daylight, fucking things up for us!”
The threat of being upstaged is always palpable in Feig’s films. Take, for instance, the dueling engagement party speeches by new frenemies in 2011’s Bridesmaids, or the dismissive antics of Jason Statham’s overly aggressive and insecure secret agent in 2015’s Spy. Women betray each other out of fear and self-doubt, while men demean women once their power is threatened. Sarcasm and snarky jokes ensue, usually revolving around physical appearance and gender roles. This happens in awkward public exchanges for all to see or during private explosions of angst.
To combat this trend, Feig’s characters employ body language as a means to express frustration, desire, and protest. While most filmmakers would play these situations simply for laughs, Feig and his core collaborators - McCarthy, Rose Byrne, and Kristin Wiig – deny such simplicity, contemplating the power of gesture as a way to signify a range of emotions and reclaim their identity. These conflicted heroines rely on exaggerated performance to confront the absurd and sexist assumptions made by their male (and sometimes female) counterparts, calling bullshit on the status quo and destroying all sense of limitation in the process.
“I think maybe we’re on different rhythms.”
Annie’s (Kristin Wiig) casual mid coitus plea to her douche of a fuck buddy Ted (Jon Hamm) occurs during the opening scene of Bridesmaids. It’s an uncomfortable montage of sexual selfishness that pivots on forced body position and unequal pacing. Instead of whispering sweet nothings, he repeatedly blows air into her ear. Instead of slowing down, he speeds up. He finishes; we’re never sure if she does.
The embarrassment continues. Annie’s walk of shame includes climbing a security fence and having it suddenly swing open to allow a visiting car entrance exactly at the very moment when her body is most vulnerable. One leg dangles off each side, her body forced to straddle the gate until it stops moving. Annie smiles and waves, because what else could she do? And she hasn’t even hit rock bottom yet.
Bridemaids continues to put Annie through the proverbial ringer, and Wiig’s slyly complex performance provides clues to her character’s increasingly fragile sense of self. After her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces she’s engaged, Annie’s faux-elation quickly turns to panic and frustration, as expressed entirely through a gradual shift in facial expression. Making peace with one’s failure is something Annie has refused to do up until now, which is why she feels low enough to even consider Ted as dateable material and why she can’t truly be happy for Lillian.
Still, the essence of Annie’s tenacious spirit remains intact, despite being left by her longtime boyfriend after their cake business went belly up. We see glimmers of it the first time she meets new love interest Officer Rhodes (Chris O’ Dowd), who pulls her over for a disabled taillight. While participating in a sobriety test, Annie doesn’t walk a straight line; she literally dances all over it, making a mockery of the moment. Even though she’s frustrated, this is her way of laughing at her perceived ridiculous misfortune.
In one of Bridesmaids’ great set pieces, Annie gets drunk during a cross-country jaunt to Las Vegas hoping to quell her fear of flying. Visually intoxicated, she saunters up to first class where Lillian sits with Helen (Rose Byrne), the dashingly beautiful and rich socialite who has consistently undermined her efforts as maid of honor. Wiig’s body unevenly bends back and forth like a broken pendulum, before coming to rest at a contorted angle overlooking the other two women. In this inebriated state she can finally use her body language to convey all of the repressed feelings that have been boiling underneath.
Annie’s disposition sours further later in the film, as she grows increasingly angry with Helen and her mischievous activities. It all comes to head during a melt down at Lillian’s Parisian-themed bridal shower. The rage initially spews forth through traditional tongue-lashing, but quickly escalates into a Keaton-esque tirade where Annie’s arms and legs fling all over the place to inflict maximum damage on the delicate set dressings. By the time it’s all over she has momentarily destroyed a friendship and taken a bath in the giant chocolate fountain.
Eventually, Annie’s verbal communication skills improve as life lessons are learned, which makes her rely less on the body language Feig likes to showcase. Still, there are notable examples of this motif in the threads involving other characters: McCarthy’s force of nature Meghan, the sister of the groom whose introduction involves a story about falling off the side of a cruise ship, props her leg up to block the movement of a potential mate. Finally, there’s the impassioned group performance of Wilson Phillips’ ‘Hold On’ that plays over the final sequence, a musical compliment to the film’s core testament: women can support the success of other women without sacrificing their own sense of self.
“That’s a misrepresentation of my vagina.”
Ashburn’s calm response to yet another below the belt jab from Mullins is one of the funnier moments in The Heat, a modern riff on the 1970s police procedural that destroys all traces of a plausible plot in favor of controlled chaos. It also represents Feig’s ongoing examination of how women’s bodies are compartmentalized and diminished not only by men, but also by each other.
Certainly less successful than Bridesmaids in terms of story and pacing, Feig’s sophomore effort is nonetheless important for finally handing McCarthy a leading role worthy of her charisma and upping the action kinetics that would later be perfected in Spy. The emphasis on body image is also more pronounced. FBI agent Ashburn wears conservative suits, follows protocol, and has ambitions to climb the company ladder. Mullins, a go-for-broke Boston cop, dresses slovenly in plain clothes, is fiercely protective of her neighborhood, and gives zero shits about the chain of command.
Like Annie and Helen, these two women will spend the duration fighting and weakening each other before eventually realizing they are more powerful and productive as friends. But along the way Feig and McCarthy take every chance to ridicule the double standard placed on compromised women professionals, an archetype embodied by Bullock’s brown nosing opportunist.
In The Heat’s opening sequence, Ashburn leads a S.W.AT. raid on a neighborhood home occupied by dangerous gunmen. Instead of listening to her command, the male squad leader purposefully disobeys orders and breaches the door with his fellow officers before she finishes her three count. If some men refuse to recognize women in roles of power, Mullins refuses to let them off the hook for this disrespect. Look no further than the moment she pulls Tony Hale’s creepy suburban dad out of his own car for soliciting a prostitute. Adding insult to injury, Mullins calls the man’s wife about his philandering.
Ashburn witnesses another occurrence first hand when Mullins emasculates her sergeant by destroying his office while sarcastically “looking for his balls.” Here we see Feig and McCarthy sharpening their comedic teeth and taking no prisoners, escalating the aggressiveness against male power structures to shake things up. Still, neither woman is above demeaning herself to get the job done, like when Mullins sexualizes Ashburn’s conservative outfit in the bathroom of a club in order to get closer to a dirt bag suspect. While on the dance floor, Ashburn grinds on the man while Mullins literally flings off any potential female competition.
The scene is just one of many that descends quickly into a level of madness founded on wild movement and dark comedy. Another example featuring a botched tracheotomy is both squirm worthy but also telling of Ashburn’s hubris gone awry. Ashburn’s tenacity comes in handy during the final scene she slides into frame gun drawn and shoots the film’s villain squarely in the groin. Once the dust settles, the two women end up in each other’s arms, broken but not beat.
McCarthy’s bruising, bruised performance gives The Heat it’s heart, but Bullock’s ability to instill Ashburn with humility makes their eventual friendship feel earned and equal. “It’s hard to make female friends,” Ashburn confesses longingly, alluding to the deep melancholy that Annie and Helen also exhibit in Bridesmaids.
“We need someone who is invisible.”
The key ingredient to Spy’s espionage narrative involves desk-jockey C.I.A. operative Susan Cooper’s (McCarthy) ability to go unnoticed by the international terrorists she’s tasked to track. After her suave super spy partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) is seemingly murdered at the hands of nuclear arms smuggler Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Susan ships off to Europe hoping to gather information as a passive observer. In no time she’s forced to engage the enemy while trying to stay undercover, taking on various new identities while reawakening old skill sets that have long been dormant while playing second fiddle to Fine.
Susan’s homely appearance becomes a recurring plot point in the film. Instead of getting sexy aliases, she’s handed unflattering monikers: a cat lady from the Midwest, a single mother, and a lonely loser. All are judgmental representations of how the world (and her female boss) happens to see her. Early in the film we learn that Susan’s own mother raised her to be background fodder, often spouting off ill-formed advice like, “Well behaved women often make history” and “forget your dreams.”
McCarthy’s Susan quickly subverts the boundaries and expectations placed upon her by the job and her past. She strips the banal cat lady attire for a swanky dress code more than once, engages in foot chases and shootouts that often end badly for men, and continuously saves her rogue colleague Rick Ford, played with cocky bravado by Statham. “I make it a habit of doing things people say I can’t,” he says, but Susan’s actions always speak louder than his words. At one point she becomes so fed up with Ford’s antics she mimics someone being hung by the neck, pissing him off even more. Statham is game to caricature the swaggering brand of machismo he’s made a career fine-tuning.
Like Feig’s previous films, Spy centers on a woman discovering the power she has in dictating her own future, and also coming to grips with the challenges inherit to these pursuits. Susan is never afforded the kind of weepy down time Annie receives, or the safety net of a partnership like Ashburn and Mullins. Instead, she’s tasked with the lonely job of being a hero that saves the world, and by accepting the mission she chooses to put her body on the line in more ways than one. This includes pursuing dangerous suspects on a scooter through the streets of Rome, engaging in a close-contact knife fight with a glamorous killer, and swinging from an ascending helicopter.
Despite this added responsibility and bravery, people continue to disrespect Susan. Rayna berates her for wearing a tacky dress, Italian spy Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) makes crude sexual advances while driving through Rome, and Ford’s relentless meddling disrupts more than one well-intentioned plan. Feig positions Susan at the center of nearly every frame, but does not afford her instant confidence one would expect from a traditional hero under such duress. There’s a learning curve to being a badass, and Susan is expectedly uncomfortable in the role. Her disjointed and messy actions reflects this unease. In one beautiful high angle shot, she vomits all over the dead body of a skewered henchman, revealing the vulnerability of an action star still finding her sea legs.
Aside from being disposable, men are heavy anchors for women in Spy. Held down by Ford’s idiocy (quite literally in the final chase sequence), the ghost of her debonair former partner, and every conceivable roadblock within the male genre world, Susan nevertheless perseveres.
As does Byrne’s Reyna, who despite experiencing her own embarrassments at the hands of men both alive and dead - she’s literally groped by a deceased assassin during a gravity-defying action sequence aboard a crashing plane – fiercely stakes a claim as an independent businesswoman in a male-dominated professional landscape. Her fanatical desire to become a Bond-like villain is just as founded in familial trauma as Susan’s need to join the espionage ranks.
Both of these women eventually reach a place of mutual respect despite being mortal enemies. In doing so, they transcend the roles as hero and villain and become something far more human. The same could be said for Susan’s relationship with her C.I.A. sister-in-arms Nancy (Miranda Hart), who subverts her own role as side kick and mentor to eventually save the day with one perfectly aimed shot. Spy ends in typical Feig fashion, with Susan and Nancy walking off into the sunset having just stopped a nuclear attack together. A few cuts later, after a drunken night of celebration, Susan wakes up next to a naked Ford, a mile-wide smile draped across his face, regret on hers. Oh how far she’s come.
In many ways, Spy feels like the perfect culmination for Feig and McCarthy, fusing together body language and sarcasm in the most male of genres. Here, they’ve reconfigured the globetrotting spy thriller it into a smart, proactive, and endearing deconstruction of what femininity looks like in the modern world. It’s a Bond spoof that’s often better than the real thing.
“Let’s let our bodies decide.”
Uttered during the infamous and explosive wedding dress sequence in Bridesmaids, this statement also represents the pliable nature of Feig and McCarthy’s comedies, and more importantly, their openness to the power of movement and action as a universal comedic language.
By making failure an inevitable part of evolving personal relationships, these films demystify the fear that so often paralyzes good women (and men) from finding their calling. Each uses body language in funny, daring, and snarky ways, offering a reappraisal of self-empowerment, friendship and collective empathy. May this cinema of sarcastic resistance keep kicking Hollywood’s conventional wisdom in the nuts for years to come.
Now, in anticipation of Feig, McCarthy, and Wiig’s next collaboration - this summer’s all-female revamp of Ghostbusters - here’s a few parting lyrics from the great Wilson Philips.
“I know this pain,
Why do you lock yourself up in these chains?
No one can change your life except for you,
Though never let anyone step all over you.”