**½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Sam Heughan
screenplay by Susanna Fogel and David Iserson
directed by Susanna Fogel
by Bryant Frazer The Spy Who Dumped Me is a lot--femme-centric rom-com, violent action-thriller, dopey spy farce, and genial paean to friendship in the face of adversity--and director Susanna Fogel revels in the tonal disparities from its opening sequence, which intercuts an enthusiastically mounted, bullet-riddled chase scene set in Vilnius, Lithuania, with scenes from a birthday party for Audrey Stockman (Mila Kunis), a 30-year-old grocery clerk who's just been blindsided by a break-up text from Drew Thayer (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of one year. The party's been organized by Audrey's devoted pal Morgan (Kate McKinnon), an aspiring actress whose ceaseless shenanigans help blunt Audrey's sadness. It quickly becomes clear that, somehow, the guy hiding out from Lithuanian thugs in the gloomy, desaturated espionage thriller is Drew himself. When Morgan grabs Audrey's phone and sends a text calling him a "worthless nutsack" and promising to "set his shit on fire," Audrey gets a returned phone call from that other movie, in which Drew beseeches her to reconsider. Fogel keeps this up for a solid 10 minutes before the film's title appears on screen, and it's an intriguing overture.
The idea of a female-fronted, R-rated spy movie isn't especially novel in the aftermath of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, but there is something delicious about the notion of a couple of completely ordinary millennials boasting and bluffing their way through a multinational conspiracy plot. The funny business isn't as funny as it should be--too many gags don't land, and some of the scenes have a choppy quality, suggesting they never quite came together in the cutting room. But Fogel cuts no corners getting her spy-movie pastiche on screen, which helps propel things forward. Second-unit director Gary Powell is a veteran of Jason Bourne, James Bond, and more, and with his assistance Fogel pulls off stunts and executes camera moves that shouldn't really be possible in a romantic comedy--including a great shot that begins inside an apartment, then follows closely behind and beside Theroux as he takes a running jump off a balcony, rolls off the back of a panel truck, commandeers a motorcycle, and rides off. Scenes shot in Vienna have the sophisticated gloss of a Mission: Impossible movie, and the large-scale modernist architecture of Budapest provides some especially imposing locations as the film's mood grows darker near its midpoint, when Audrey and Morgan are taken hostage and briefly threatened with torture. That's when we meet Ivanna Sakhno, who gives an intensely deadpan performance as Nadedja, a round-eyed, tightly strung Olympic-gymnast-turned-assassin with a sadistic streak and a probably unhealthy attachment to her balance beam.
Before long, the picture springs back into a more broadly comic mode, even developing a second, more devastatingly handsome spy, Sebastian (Sam Heughan of "Outlander"), as a love interest for Audrey. More than anything else, though, The Spy Who Dumped Me builds a showcase for Kate McKinnon, who first appears high-stepping her way into the frame as she sings "Happy Birthday" like the love child of Liza Minnelli and John Cleese. And she swings, struts, and sashays her way through the increasingly violent proceedings with brio as Kunis plays straight woman to her lanky, savvy jester. Her outfit for the first third of the movie is a black-and-white tank-top, suspenders, and capris combo that suggests a knockabout lineage dating back to vaudeville and silent movies. It is possible Fogel is so smitten with McKinnon that she allows her to overplay this shtick--the extended climax has Morgan fulfilling her longtime dream of performing on stage in a Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze act. ("Remember your training from the New Jersey Circus Center," she tells herself.) This bit of business is meant, I think, as a triumphant sally into surrealistic lunacy--and there's something so spectacularly unflattering about McKinnon's outfit, as well as the way the harsh stage lights hit her face, that you have to admire her commitment--but it seems to go on forever and, worse, separates Morgan from Audrey.
If McKinnon's constant mugging threatens to deprive her co-stars of oxygen, she nevertheless brightens the film considerably and even gives it a measure of poignancy. The love life described by the title belongs only to Audrey; Morgan is single when the movie begins and single when it ends, and there's the faintest hint that her surface outrageousness hides a loneliness and insecurity underneath. (She's stunned into silence when Drew responds to one of her jokes by calling her "a little much.") But she's not bitter about it--far from it, she plays Cupid. In one scene, the pay-off to a long-running gag, she's delighted to learn that Audrey has the film's MacGuffin hidden inside her vagina. When Audrey retrieves it and hands it to a nonplussed Sebastian, the look on McKinnon's face is, well, not lascivious, exactly, but kind of wicked. She's watching a connection being made, and she's excited for her friend--though not sappy about it. It's a broad moment, yet well-observed and almost precious in context. The Spy Who Dumped Me isn't totally successful, but with character beats like this in her wheelhouse, Fogel deserves another shot.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Lionsgate has prepped The Spy Who Dumped Me for 4K home viewing despite having released it to theatres only in 2K, so it's likely this transfer is upscaled from a 2K master. Whatever its origins, the picture does right by DP Barry Peterson's rich, often moody cinematography. The drastically desaturated opening action scenes, drab and dusty in HD, take on an almost hyperreal quality thanks to the illusion of sunlight and depth conveyed through HDR encoding. (I viewed the HDR10 version and can't speak to how the Dolby Vision metadata may offer further enhancements.) HDR works as beautifully in the birthday-party scene, where strings of red lights create beautiful patterns of crisply-rendered colour as they drop out of focus in the background, as it does in the trapeze-swinging climax, where the picture still pops with sharpness despite the preponderance of the sort of luscious blues, purples, and magentas you might expect to swamp shadow detail. Exterior scenes, too, are uniformly bright and colourful, adding punch to the action. Skin tones are gorgeously flush from start to finish, except at moments when they've clearly been taken one direction or another by on-set lighting or in the colour grade. Owing largely to its digital origins, the picture is mostly grain-free; when a little bit of noise does appear, it's never obtrusive. Encoding at a generous average bitrate of 83 Mbps helps keep any artifacting at bay.
Audio quality is as impressive as the imagery. (While a presumably more detailed Dolby Atmos stream is included, my system supports only the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 presentation.) Listen to the scene where Audrey and Morgan meet "Verne" at the Viennese restaurant. In the first part of the sequence, the expected prandial ambience--low-key voices murmuring, piano plinking, plates clanking, etc.--fills the room before all hell breaks loose to the tune of screams, gunfire, and breaking bottles echoing all around. Bass-heavy effects hit with a satisfying wallop, and the film's score, by Tyler Bates, makes itself comfortable across the soundstage.
The main behind-the-scenes content here is split into two talking-heads-and-B-roll featurettes. First up, "Covert Operations: The Making of The Spy Who Dumped Me" (11 mins.) is devoted mainly to a discussion of casting, although Fogel and her co-writer, David Iserson, take a few moments to talk about the origins of the project, which they intended to use as a bridge from their backgrounds in indie-style comedy to the bigger-budget feature films they wanted to be making. "I knew I didn't have, on paper, the resume to back it up," Fogel says, "but at the same time I had this friend who would constantly ask the question, 'What would a man do in this situation?'" Thanks to the involvement of producer Brian Grazer, she says, their eventual road to the screen was a smooth one. Also weighing in briefly are Grazer himself, executive producers Karen Lunder and Guy Riedel, McKinnon, Kunis, Theroux, Heughan, and Sakhno, and supporting players Hasan Minhaj (who provides a clip from his audition tape) and Gillian Anderson. More engaging, the single-minded "Gary Powell: The Action Behind the Film" (9 mins.) covers the beloved second-unit director's contributions to the film's stunts and action scenes with interviews that are illustrated by a generous assortment of behind-the-scenes footage related to the major action scenes.
Last and least is "Makin' Friends with Hasan Minhaj" (7 mins.), a content-free supplement that has a grinning Minhaj bothering colleagues (Heughan and Sakhno among them) in Budapest and pretending that various members of the cast and crew, including some locals, are his buddies. This bit is alternately tedious and uncomfortable, as it's clear that some non-English-speakers aren't in on the joke and at least one female crew member finds Minhaj genuinely annoying. Not sure how this made the cut, frankly, unless Minhaj is a much bigger star than I thought. Bundled with the disc are Blu-ray and digital copies of The Spy Who Dumped Me.