The comedy buddy thriller is a strange conglomeration of film genres that’s not easy to pull off. It has to balance all three formats – comedy, action-thriller, and buddy movie – and each of the three aspects has to work. The best example was one of the first: 1976’s Silver Streak, directed by Arthur Hiller and starring (together for the first but not the last time) Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. The element that’s usually shortchanged in these films is the comedy. There are plenty of action-thriller buddy movies that have a comedic element to them; the Lethal Weapon series would be a prime example. However, the comedy is more incidental than intentional, with nothing in the vein of the classic scene of Pryor coaching Wilder to be black. Shane Black, the writer of the first Lethal Weapon, has tried to accomplish the trifecta often, recently with The Good Guys. His most successful attempt, though, would have to be 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer.
One regular piece of the puzzle with these films is the female lead/romantic interest who’s beautiful, and often an excellent actress, but who’s function is usually to be in danger rather than handle things herself. In Silver Streak it was Jill Clayburgh, and Michelle Monaghan played the role in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It’s fitting that in the era of #MeToo, we now have The Spy Who Dumped Me, which flips the roles.
Audrey (Mila Kunis) is trying to get over her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) who ended their relationship via text message. Her best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) has taken her out with other friends to the watering hole where she first met Drew a year earlier. In an alcohol induced buzz, they decide to burn the items Drew left at Audrey’s apartment. Audrey texts Drew about their plans, only to have Drew respond immediately asking her not to do that. The next morning, he sneaks into her apartment from the balcony to take back a cheap trophy, telling Audrey he must get it to a contact at a restaurant in Vienna. But then everything goes to hell and Drew’s killed. Audrey and Morgan are taken into custody by CIA agent Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) and MI-6 agent Sebastian (Sam Heughan). Audrey and Morgan manage to escape and decide to carry out Drew’s instructions themselves.
The chemistry between Kunis and McKinnon creates a symbiotic relationship that enhances both performances. Kunis is freer to indulger her comedic chops, while McKinnon, who often lets her humor run wild, is more focused and grounded, though just as funny. With the male version of the buddy comedy, the tension is often in how they learn to work together. With Kunis and McKinnon, it’s how they can support each other to survive the thriller portion of the plot.
Director Susanna Fogel, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Iserson (The New Girl, Mr. Robot), does the action aspect of the story with skill, including a wonderful opening sequence that establishes Justin Theroux’s character. Then she can slip in physical comedy moment such as when Kunis and McKinnon, escaping pursuers, hijack a Jaguar only to be defeated by the manual transmission. Anyone from the States who’s spent time in Europe can relate.
There’s some fun work in the supporting cast as well, including Sam Heughan (the hunk of a Scottish rebel on “Outlander”) who’s thrust into the blond love interest role, and Gillian Anderson as the ice queen head of MI-6. As a femme fatale – heavy emphasis on the fatale – Ukrainian actress Ivanna Sakhno provides one of the more blatant heavies in the film, though there are plenty of bad guys to go around.
The movie does earn its R rating, and not simply because of the action element. The title is, of course, a twist of the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, and early on Fogel has a shot that spoofs the iconic Bond poster for For Your Eyes Only. You can put it down to turnabout being fair play after all the objectification of women in films over the years. The Spy Who Dumped Me isn’t high art. It aims at the adrenal gland as well as the funny bone, and it manages to hit both.