'Spy': Why Melissa McCarthy's action comedy stands out

Over the past few decades, female-led comedies have been box office hits, but many have been romantic comedies. McCarthy's starring in movies that aren't primarily concerned with her getting the guy.

Larry Horricks/20th Century Fox/AP
'Spy' stars Melissa McCarthy (r.) and Allison Janney (l.).

Melissa McCarthy’s comedy “Spy” opens Friday, the newest film led by the actress following “Tammy,” “The Heat,” and “Bridesmaids.” 

“Spy” stars McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a CIA office worker who must enter the field when the identities of other agents are learned by their enemies. It co-stars Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law, and Allison Janney.

A comedy led by a female actress like “Spy” is rare enough, but “Spy” is also unusual because it’s a comedy led by a female actress that’s not a romantic comedy. Movies like 1999’s “Notting Hill,” the 2002 movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and “The Proposal” have done well at the box office, but they’ve all followed the familiar rom-com formula. 

Many of the recent exceptions have co-starred McCarthy herself. The 2011 comedy “Bridesmaids” became a box office smash and coined the phrase “The ‘Bridesmaids’ effect” to describe how more female-led comedies have been produced. “On May 16, the Monday morning after ‘Bridesmaids’ opened to an unexpected $26.2 million, with an audience that was 67 percent female, you could hear the edict bellowed at studio staff meetings everywhere: ‘Where's our Bridesmaids?!,’” Hollywood Reporter writer David T. Friendly wrote. “Bridesmaids” had a romantic side plot involving protagonist Annie (Kristen Wiig) falling in love with a police officer, but the main focus of the movie was Annie’s friendship with bride-to-be Lillian (Maya Rudolph). McCarthy co-starred as another bridesmaid. Another comedy that wasn’t centered on romantic intrigue was the 2013 movie “The Heat,” which starred McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as loose cannon and by-the-book police officers, respectively. The film also triumphed at the box office, becoming the fifteenth-highest-grossing movie of the year, according to the website Box Office Mojo.

Another hopeful sign? McCarthy’s starring in a new “Ghostbusters” story with actresses Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon. There may be romantic plotlines involving one or all of the stars, but presumably, their main objective will be taking care of those pesky ghosts.

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