The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

I have not yet seen the latest entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise despite its soaring critical consensus, which posits the film as the greatest action epic since Fury Road. This is more a result of scheduling & MoviePass-related mishaps than it is indicative of a lack of interest, as the previous entry in the Tom Cruise series, Rogue Nation, was my favorite episode to date. Even though I’ve somehow missed out on Mission: Impossible – Fallout in its first few weeks on the big screen, it has been on my mind, something the Mila Kunis/Kate McKinnon buddy comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me was banking on as clownish mockbuster counterprogramming. Despite the Bond reference in its title, the timing of The Spy Who Dumped Me’s release is deliberately in tandem with the guaranteed Tom Cruise money-maker, possibly in hopes of offering lighter fare for audiences already in the mood for its spy thriller genre territory. This tactic is unmistakably clear in the very first sequence, where a handsome American spy (Justin Theroux) fights off an undercover contingent of international baddies in a Lithuanian open-air market, a blatant knockoff of the iconic Mission: Impossible theme music soundtracking the affair. There’s no real comedy to this mise-en-scène action set piece opening, just a violent chase through European settings that’s meant to feel like just another spy mission in a long series of international exploits that we’re joining midstream. The sequence concludes with the bang of a makeshift microwave explosive, a violent burst that propels popcorn into the frame for the title card, just to let the audience know this is an escapist summertime version of the serious stuff: a literal popcorn flick. The Spy Who Dumped Me is the light action comedy counterprogramming to Mission: Impossible’s more self-serious espionage thriller offering, and it’s totally charming for that.

As the parodic, less-than-serious version of the modern espionage thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t have to do much to distinguish itself from the Mission: Impossible franchise to avoid direct mockbuster territory. That hurdle it clears with ease. The more difficult task it stumbles over is distinguishing itself from the Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig team-up Spy. In both works, everyday women are inducted into international espionage missions when the action-hero men in their lives (Theroux & Jude Law, respectively) are taken out of commission. The Spy Who Dumped Me only differs from the Spy template by affording its nobody-turned-international-spy protagonist (Mil Kumis) a lifelong bestie sidekick (Kate McKinnon). After being dumped via text message by her undercover spy boyfriend (ostensibly for her own safety), Kunis finds herself in desperate need of an adventurous shake-up to spice up her milquetoast lifestyle. The more free-wheeling McKinnon encourages this new thirst for adventurism with every opportunity she can. When the spy boyfriend is taken out of action and their own safety is compromised, she pushes Kunis to turn this opportunity into a besties’ European vacation. Instead of the usual sight-seeing, selfies, and clubbing exploits of American women traversing Europe, the pair indulge in shoot-outs, car chases, and elaborate heists. They kill people. They’re almost killed. It’s all in good fun. The overall set-up & individual gags are all very similar to Feig’s Spy picture, but the emotional core is less rooted in Kunis’s need to break out of her shell (as was the case with McCarthy’s) than it is in her friendship with McKinnon. The pair push, encourage, challenge, and genuinely love each other enough for the story to distinguish itself from Spy in its central character dynamics, even if all the background detail & overriding genre structure render the two films unavoidably comparable.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is so comfortable with admitting to its Mission: Impossible parallels that it includes the line “Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .” in an early scene of tiki bar flirtation. I assume its parallels to Spy were much less intentional, a byproduct of the film’s overall adherence to mainstream comedy tropes (including go-to modern comedy gross-outs like flaccid male nudity & extended diarrhea gags). Formulaic comedy foundations have led to plenty enjoyable pictures in the past, tough, typically dependent on the strength of the performers involved. McKinnon does most of the heavy-lifting there are as the film’s de facto clown (a role she eventually takes very literally in a climactic Cirque du Soleil sequence). Her over-the-top SNL energy keeps the mood light & affable, even in scenes where baddies & bystanders are being torn to shreds by bullets. She’s even afforded plenty of room to bring her real-life personality quirks into the role, teaching grotesque bros about feminism & loudly broadcasting her life-long love of Gillian Anderson (playing a fantasy version of Dana Scully who eventually climbed the FBI ranks to head her own espionage bureau). Even if the excitement around Mission: Impossible – Fallout hasn’t ignited an immediate thirst for more (and sillier) espionage thriller content or the memory of Spy is too vivid for you to enjoy its comedically inferior echo, Kate McKinnon alone is well worth the price of admission for The Spy Who Dumped Me. This early in her career it’s still rare to see her afforded extensive, front & center screentime, so this movie cannot be overvalued as a McKinnon showcase. The lagniappe delight in that indulgence is that she gets to participate in a sweet, endearing action comedy about female friendship, one where the action & the friendship dynamic are both surprisingly convincing & well-staged. With that comedic & emotional core, any adherence to genre formula or parallels to more substantial works are beside the point of this self-proclaimed popcorn flick’s in-the-moment entertainment value, which is rich & plentiful throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

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The worst part about hating Jupiter Ascending is that I was really rooting for it. I’m not a Wachowskis super fan or anything (I barely know of their work outside The Maxtrix & Speed Racer); I just liked the movie’s basic concept & attributes. The idea of a sci-fi action-adventure with a female lead hit a lot of my sweet spots right out of the gate, but every one of those elements in the final product fell embarrassingly flat. The female lead, played by Mila Kunis, is for the most part a passenger & an observer while the action swirls around her (she’s a literal princess in need of saving, even). The action itself alternates from occasionally engaging to just painfully awful, anchored mostly by an against-all-odds unsexy Channing Tatum figure skating through the air (thanks to some kind of goofy laser boots) while terrible CGI obstacles crash & burn in his wake. That leaves the film’s sci-fi concepts to carry the load, which they occasionally do in a Richard Kelly kitchen sink fashion, but even those fade to long stretches of unimpressive action sequences. In short, Jupiter Ascending is a failure, when I really, really didn’t want it to be.

I’m just one dude, though! There’s a lot floating around in the film for people to latch onto. Beautiful, futuristic landscapes & architecture are populated with (unbelievably dumb-looking) alien weirdos like CGI lizard minions & humanoid owl things (that look like Ron Perlmen in Beauty and the Beast). Eddy Redmayne gives a (laughably) memorable performance as an evil alien dictator (who is just a wig & a sashay short of a killer drag routine). The aforementioned Richard Kelly brand of too-plentiful ideas contrast an undocumented immigrant’s life as a servant on Earth with distant & lavish alien aristocrats (who cares). There’s some (mildly amusing) honey bee worship (à la Upside Down) that results in the line “Bees are genetically designed to recognize royalty.” Other lines like “Your Earth is a very small part of a very large industry,” and “Time is the single most precious commodity in the universe,” also have a sort of a staying power (even if it’s as a joke). There’s a whole lot to love in Jupiter Ascending, but if you’re like me and have problems arriving on its wavelength, that excess gets ugly quickly.

If I had to boil what’s wrong with Jupiter Ascending down to a single fault it would be that it’s just so thoroughly uncool. I could be wrong and the movie’s late 90s Hot Topic raver aesthetic could be vintage enough to be cool again (if it was ever cool), but from my POV it just feels painfully outdated, like watching your stepdad desperately try to be hip. Imagine if The Fifth Element arrived 20 years late, dead serious (or at least not funny), and about as exciting as The Ice Pirates. Maybe a list of the character names will give you an idea of what I’m describing here: Jupiter Jones, Titus Abrasax, Phylo Percadium, Gemma Chatterjee, Stinger Apini, etc. If these names belong anywhere (and I’m not sure that they do) it’s on a TV screen, clogging up a low-rent Battlestar Galactica knockoff. Much of the film operates this way, feeling like a television show whose special effects budget was afforded way too much money and not nearly enough time to get the details right. I sincerely hope that there are people who have positive experiences with Jupiter Ascending, as I do find it interesting in concept, but it’s a movie I would love to never see or think about again. This might work out just fine, as even while I was watching I felt like it had been released nearly two decades ago.

-Brandon Ledet