The main thing to know about The Spy Who Dumped Me is that it’s rated R for a reason. Not because it’s especially bawdy or raunchy in the humor department — though it is like 50 percent comedy, and some of it is raunch. But it’s that other 50 percent that might surprise you. It’s just a bloody shoot-em-up. And I don’t mean that there’s, like, a couple of gunfights. I mean that the film veers from comedy into action and back again like a playground see-saw. And those action bits are proper bone-crunching splatterfests.
Now, for me, this isn’t a detraction in the least. I love blood and punching and grunting and car chases and blasty shoot-outs where the bad guys have piss poor aim. That’s my fucking JAM. So having that all swirled into a female buddy comedy like some sort of marble rye of genres just straight-up did it for me. But it only worked because the movie DID go hard in both directions. Neither the comedy nor the action was toned down in lieu of the other. And yet, doing so led to some on-the-fly tonal shifting that might be jarring for a lot of people. So all I can do is try to explain why I think it was actually handled really well in this case.
But first: the plot! Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (Kate McKinnon) are BFFs of the sisterly variety. Ride or die, do anything for you kind of friends. We know this because on Audrey’s birthday, Morgan shows up to the bar with her OWN FUCKING MICROPHONE to do a lounge act in her honor. It’s very much in McKinnon’s wheelhouse. It also might be a way of making Audrey feel better about being dumped via text by her boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), the titular Dumping Spy. Which honestly might be one of the funnier gags in the movie. Like, seriously? A spy named Drew? Please. That’s patently ridiculous. What next, Secret Agent Travis?
Of course, Audrey doesn’t yet know that Drew’s a spy, or that he’s got a very important package (snicker) hidden at her apartment, which is wanted by international task forces and terrorists alike. She only finds out when she’s lured to a van by a hot MI6 agent named Sebastian (Sam Heughan) and interrogated there by him and his pretentious CIA colleague Duffer (Hasan Minhaj). And that’s basically the launchpad for this spy romp: Audrey and Morgan set off on a wild trip around Europe, following Drew’s directions to trust no one and see the package into the right hands, whatever those might be (his directions were somewhat lacking). Gillian Anderson plays Sebastian’s expressionless and unamused spy boss, while Ivanna Sakhno is electric as a gymnast/assassin named Nadedja. Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser pop up as Morgan’s overly close parents. Everyone in the cast is great, really. But at heart, this is a girls trip with life-or-death stakes, and nobody is given as much spotlight as Kunis and McKinnon.
Personally, I bought their chemistry. But more than that, I bought the friendship between them as it was performed and as it was written by Susanna Fogel, who also directed, and David Iserson. Here’s Fogel talking about her goal in writing this with the LA Times:
“It’s become my lifetime passion as a writer to try to show female friendships in the way that I see them, which is as emotional and connected and deep,” said Fogel. “I feel like most movies about female friends derive their conflict from an extension of the high school movie rivalries or there’s some petty grievance: a competition over a guy or a wedding date or something. And I don’t relate to any of that.
“I think when I was younger I probably had more friendships that were fraught in that way,” she continued. “But now my friends are basically my family. It’s the family you choose. And I wanted to show the fun and love there.”
And that’s what I liked — their friendship felt lived in and specific and real to me in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Audrey is the woman in a dead-end job, who has given up on law school and art school and worries that she never finishes anything. And McKinnon is an actress by trade, and “dramatic” by nature. Her performance is the showier part, simply because she’s Kate McKinnon and she’s given a loooooong leash to play with. As the film goes on, both discover they may have a knack for this whole spy schtick. Audrey is a crack shot and quick-witted in a pinch, while Morgan uses her training and natural shamelessness to get through tough situations. It also helps that they both are perpetually underestimated, in what is a theme for the movie. They are the dumb Americans (a phrase used to almost annoying effect, until it comes back around and is justified). They are failures, and jokes, and weak. But instead of suddenly becoming super spies, they use exactly who they are to survive in a world of espionage and danger. There is no training montage. They never have to compete with the guys. They truly are fish out of water. It’s just that they… acclimate. They adjust. And they support each other.
That support is the emotional backbone that sold the movie for me. Sure, it begins as support through a trying break up (with no crying — only burning), but as the movie continues, you see more facets of their connection. Morgan is always quick to praise Audrey for pulling off surprising feats that nobody, Audrey included, expected. And Audrey is the one person who accepts Morgan’s natural exuberance for exactly what it is: a strength, and unique, and beautiful. There are no convenient catfights or jealous outbursts or fighting-over-the-same-man contrivances to move the plot along. Instead, the most surprising moment in the film is a quiet one, on a train out of Vienna, when the women have a moment to digest what they are going through. It’s then that Morgan reveals what Drew said to her the night he met Audrey. He told her, essentially, “Has anyone ever told you you’re a little much?” Which, to a woman like Morgan, is a simple phrase that cut to the quick. Yet she never told her best friend, because she was more concerned for Audrey’s happiness with Drew. For anyone who has ever had misgivings about their friend’s partner, this moment speaks volumes. That choice of whether to reveal the hunch or the slight, or to sit back and see what happens, is hard. But, again, the choice comes down to how best you can support your friend. And ya’ll — McKinnon sold the FUCK out of this moment.
The one thing I will say is that, because they are the fish out of water, they are often merely surviving amidst the chaos of the action sequences. They each eventually get their own badass moments (for Morgan, it comes down to an insane Cirque du Soleil-inspired showdown), but if you’re hoping the women turn into little Atomic Blondes you’ll be disappointed. They react to the crazy violence more than they perpetrate it — and those reactions themselves are part of the humor. While on the surface it might seem tonally jarring, I give credit to Fogel and Iserson for making sure that the women are grounded in their friendship throughout the more standard super spy sequences. Really, the movie never stops being a female buddy comedy. It’s just that women are complex, and their friendships don’t need to halt simply because millions of lives are at stake and there’s a MacGuffin to protect. They can save the world on their own terms.