Twist my arm: screening spy movies for research, part 1

So here I am working on a new series idea about spies, with lots of unresolved sexual tension and wit and unleashing a bit more of my giant vocabulary than I customarily use. I’m taking the opportunity to read masses of novels about Kate Fansler, Mrs Pollifax, Smiley, and whoever else comes my way. I’m also watching way too many silly movies.

Which led me to Spy, The Spy Who Dumped Me, and Ocean’s 8.

What follows is a rant about these films from several standpoints, not necessarily in order of importance: my overall appreciation of the film, its usefulness to me in my current endeavor, and its tolerability to a feminist viewer.

 

Seat of pants, I would rank these in order as named above. Because I save the frosting for last and always start with the palest strawberry, I’d say Ocean’s 8, written and directed by Gary Ross, does not suck. It would have benefited from allowing the cast to help more with the creative effort, in terms of developing the characters. The plan, apparently, was to ping as many themes and bits from the guy-Ocean’s as possible, which of course takes time.

That said, many grand things happened here:

  • Each of the eight women (except, oddly, for Bullock and Cate Blanchett) is fairly richly drawn and allowed a bit of room to vamp in. Character-based humor requires vamping.
  • Characters get to become people, and then they get to do unexpected things, so we get a delightful surprise.
  • Oceans 8 is all about the women, which I love; very few scenes feature solely men, and the writers have heard of Bechdel. They also don’t flub their multicultural stuff, at least to these mildly-woke eyes and ears.
  • The writing is pretty darned good. Ross and his female co-writer hit the exact ethical niche occupied by the guy-Ocean’s, important to me, since I’m working on a spy-lite series with a sideways approach to ethical concerns. (Which is why a caper movie is part of my homework for spy books: the ethical and puzzle factors are similar.)

My other disappointment is hard to express. These eight characters are just not as likable as the guy-Ocean’s characters. Here I become aware that I am harboring a double standard in my own heart: if smug, self-impressed, slick operators like Daniel Ocean and his buddy Rusty can get away with being incurable criminals, that is, if the viewer can warm up to them, then why do I expect Debbie Ocean and her pal Lou to justify their criminality with charm? Not that the writing allows for much charm between these two; the chemistry is not there between Bullock and Blanchett; a fragment of their backstory is offered, but we get no sense of their relationship. (My suspicion, based on Debbie’s left-field line “Lou and I were going through a stale patch,” is that they were originally conceived of as lovers, but Ross, or the studio more likely, chickened out.) I experience these two ladies as cold toward each other and their teamies; I experience Danny and Rusty as warm and ultimately loving toward their teamies.

It’s not as if Ross and his co-writer left out the feminism or the women’s friendships. This is just so close to right. I think they can do better.

So now I want girl-Ocean’s 9 and 10. If the director of those can relax already and give his cast a chance to fool around a little, we may really feel these eight, er, nine, er, ten women leap off the screen into our hearts.

What did I learn from Ocean’s 8? If you’re gonna get fancy with plot twists in a caper story, you have to make sure it makes sense. (This differs from a spy story, where that’s not necessarily required.) Pour on plenty of shiny–stacks of money, piles of bling, something the viewer can salivate over. Make the ensemble work sing.

On to The Spy Who Dumped Me. Again, this one is all about the women, including nemesis-assassin Nadedja, who comes across as amazingly complex in spite of her skimpy lines. I hope to god this becomes a franchise, although I don’t know why Mila Kunis would want to be played off the screen again by Kate McKinnon. (I think I’m hatching a crush on McKinnon. Move over, Matt Damon!)

This movie, directed by Susanna Fogel, takes the women’s friendship over the top. Total win on feminist values and girl in-jokes. And the women zip past the political into the personal with authority, in McKinnon’s case with flamboyant abandon.

Kunis could be seen as recapping a single-girl version of her Bad Moms roles, learning to break rules (like not using your turn signal while fleeing assassins in a car) and expressing true feelings, especially anger.

McKinnon’s character simply doesn’t recognize those rules. We get lots more depth on her, which is missing in Ocean’s 8 for Blanchett and Bullock, by seeing her talk to her parents, who have lovingly created a courageous, big-hearted, joyous daughter who is also (in the title spy’s words) a little much.

The guys are lookable but they in no way upstage the women. I could have done with shorter guy-fight scenes in favor of more of the ladies.

What I learned from this movie: The external spy story can be uncomplicated. It’s all about the character interaction. Write the hell out of it. Don’t get fancy with the motives or plot twists. Start with the “origins” story. Introduce electronic rabbit. Make people run around for a while, finding clues and talking to people and getting shot at. Have a terrific emotional and visual finish.

I liked Spy best of all, a Melissa McCarthy vehicle directed by madman Paul Feig. OMG so good. The feminist values are unimpeachable, the casting and acting fabulous, and it twists a very large array of spy movie tropes until they squeak for mercy like a Brownie Scout in a tickle fight.

What I liked: The McCarthy character performs damned well in CIA spy school but ends up bunkered in “the basement,” acting as the voice in her mentor Jude Law’s ear so that he becomes the superstar. Law is hilarious as a ceaselessly self-congratulating alpha male, a smug spy hero who uses and abuses his faithful basement alter-ego, asking her not only to half-choreograph all his fight scenes with the inevitable string of faceless bad guys but to pick up his dry cleaning, feed his cat, and fire his gardener for him. As amusingly and annoyingly chauvinistic as the Law character may be, he is eclipsed by Jason Statham in a role he clearly enjoys, mocking every action hero ever. There’s also an impressive array of bad guys in excellent suits.

But it’s the women who make this movie. McCarthy’s spy is modest but not stupid, protesting wittily at her endless string of mercilessly dowdy cover identities, at the way every one of her male coworkers writes her off, dismisses her, and underestimates her. Her three female foils – Allison Janney as her boss at the CIA, Miranda Hart as the woman who becomes McCarthy’s “basement voice in your ear,” and most of all Rose Byrne as the supervillainess. Byrne and McCarthy run away with the movie. Their chemistry rules.

Was this movie useful to my project? Yes, because it mocks the self-defeating pyramidal structure of the CIA, because the men are exuberant parodies of themselves, because the women overcome the prejudices and abuses of their male counterparts, because the women’s competencies win, because McCarthy gets to reject the spy she’s been in love with forever and instead spend her evening of triumph on a “gal’s night out.” Because it is to a guy-spy movie what Bachelor Party 2 was to Bachelor Party 1.

What I learned: Yes, you can supersoak the spy movie with so much estrogen that it becomes its own animal. The best part of all three movies is that they are all about the women, about women’s friendships. What kind of a world do we live in where I can find three recent gal-buddy movies in this genre? It’s good to be alive.

Stay tuned for the next installation, the testosterone edition: RED, RED 2, Kingsman, maybe the guy-Oceans movies, and The Man Who Knew Too Little. Suggestions welcome!

Ocean’s 8 (Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, 2018) Running time 110 minutes, rated PG-13. For full credits, see the listing at IMDb.

The Spy Who Dumped Me (Lionsgate, Imagine Entertainment/Lionsgate, 2018) Running time 116 minutes, rated R. For full credits, see the listing at IMDb.

Spy (Twentieth Century Fox, Chernin Entertainment/Feigco Entertainment, 2015) Running time 120 minutes, rated R. For full credits, see the listing at IMDb.

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I seem to have said more about the things I disliked than about the things I liked. I hate people like that. Here’s some blatant self-promotion. Call it a counter-irritant.

My spy series is still just a gleam in my eye, so we’ll look at a series that soaks a trope with an estrogen firehose. When I finished my Slacker Demons series, I felt I’d celebrated a whole lot of mighty fine testosterone lollipops: five guys living in a man-lair in Chicago, all ex-gods working for Hell as sex demons, all hot, all this close to losing their jobs because although they are good at meeting women they suck at the paperwork. Once I got them married off, I had this awesome lair on my hands, empty, suggestive of delicious possibilities.

Enter the Coed Demon Sluts: Hell’s experimental program for recruiting and training more ladies for that vanishing breed, the succubus. When conceived, they would obviously replace the men with women. This did not work out. An exhaustive survey of people I met in bars at science fiction conventions revealed that the Sluts would be much more complicated. When asked, “What would make you sign a contract with Hell to become a succubus?” my survey respondents surprised me. The gay women answered much as the men did: “Is this a trick question?”

But straight women gave every other answer before they got to the sex. They wanted power, they wanted power in bed, they wanted revenge on all men or at least on a specific man, they wanted a youthful body without pain or disability or cosmetic flaws, they wanted respect, they wanted physical strength, financial security, and freedom from fear. Oh, and lots of good sex.

What I ended up giving them was all of that and female friendships.

(For a longer description of the Coed Demon Sluts, see my article for John Scalzi’s The Big Idea.)

About Jennifer Stevenson

Jennifer Stevenson’s Trash Sex Magic was shortlisted for the Locus First Fantasy Novel Award and longlisted for the Nebula two years running. Try her fantasy series Hinky Chicago, which is up to five novels, her paranormal romances Slacker Demons, which are about retired deities who find work as incubi, or her women’s fiction fantasy series Coed Demon Sluts, about women solving life’s ordinary problems by becoming succubi. She has published more than 20 short stories.

Find Jennifer at the Book View Cafe blog, at the second row at fast roller derby bouts in Chicago, or on Facebook.