It isn’t a secret that Spy isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy – nor was it even the biggest hit of 2015. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And this is in the most part due to Rose Byrne and her undoubtedly scene-stealing portrayal of Rayna Boyanov. Spy follows the story of Susan Cooper, the unsung hero of the CIA who acts as Jude Law’s Moneypenny until he is gunned down during a mission to find a nuclear bomb. Enter Susan to save the day, cuing a series of globetrotting mishaps to catch Rayna. And it’s here that we see our biggest successes of Spy – Rayna succeeds in brutalising Susan’s self-esteem, all while supporting a head of hair that weighs the same as a small child. Either way, it’s impressive.
Despite steadily working for nearly a decade beforehand, Byrne only rose (no pun intended) to international prominence in 2011’s overnight hit, Bridesmaids. Always the support and never the star, she has been stealing scenes since the very outset. Despite a varied career – you may remember her from her tiny cameo in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), or perhaps from her more disturbing role in 2007’s 28 Weeks Later – we will always know and love Rose Byrne from her work in comedy. The most notable of her career being the absolute gems that Paul Feig’s been churning out the last few years like it’s going out of fashion. And this undoubtedly includes her work in Spy.
When it comes to Spy, you simply can’t get away without mentioning Melissa McCarthy, who is the apparent main attraction. McCarthy pulls out her usual spiel of self-effacing humour, painting herself in the most unflattering light possible. And perhaps this is why Byrne and McCarthy are serial collaborators – pitting McCarthy’s self-deprecation against Byrne’s laughably arrogant put-downs, there’s no way that it couldn’t work wonders. We saw it in Bridesmaids, and we certainly see it again here. Bridesmaids was arguably the first time we saw Rose Byrne in the light we see her in today, because this was not only the first time we saw her in league with McCarthy, but the first time we really saw her do comedy. Her notable roles up to this point had been, as previously discussed, horror – with 28 Weeks Later and Insidious (2010) – and her Emmy-nominated lead role in FX’s underseen legal thriller Damages. Yes, we might have had a glimpse of her potential in 2010’s Get Him to the Greek, but she most certainly wasn’t the centrepiece.
But perhaps this is what we love about Rose Byrne – even though she’s been one of the best-known female faces in comedy for nigh on six years now, it’s been a varied and uneven road to the top. And with variation comes a worldwide appreciation of underrated talent. Has no-one noticed that McCarthy plays essentially the same role each and every time? The thirtysomething single woman, who everyone assumes owns at least ten cats? No, you haven’t accidentally tripped upon the roast of Melissa McCarthy, all you need to do is catch her roles in Identity Thief (2013), The Heat (2013) and Tammy (2014) to see that this is the case. These are all roles that, despite their humour, like to tug at the heartstrings of their audience because of the abundance of sympathy that is inherent in McCarthy’s carefully crafted roles. Enter Rose Byrne. She has the hard task of outshining Melissa McCarthy, the darling of gross-out comedy (see a certain scene in Bridesmaids where it’s coming out of her like lava). And in Spy she certainly achieves it.
As soon as we’re introduced to Rayna in Spy, we’re entranced. She’s classy, she’s elegant, and she’s ludicrously loose with her profanities. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re coming from such an assuming mouth (and let’s face it, the f-word is never not funny), but it’s most likely down to the pure deadpan nature of Byrne’s delivery. She may play the villain, but by the end of the film she has us eating out of the palm of her hand. Compare this to McCarthy’s (admittedly intentionally) clumsy performance, and there’s no denying who the real star is. That moment when she utters those immortal words – “What a stupid, fucking, retarded toast… you’re delightful” – you know that McCarthy didn’t stand a chance.
The biggest success of Rose Byrne’s performance is undoubtedly her delivery. In another actor’s hands, the role of Rayna could have quickly sunken to the levels of Penélope Cruz in this year’s Grimsby. Cruz ordinarily has an overwhelming screen presence, but in Grimsby she is reduced to the role of the villain. And let’s face it, female villains are usually portrayed as inept, underhanded and easily foiled, and Grimsby is no exception. Although it feels as though McCarthy’s Susan may well be running rings around Rayna in Spy, we still feel as though Rayna is holding onto control with a vice-like grip. Perhaps it is the brittle, cut-glass English accent. But more than likely it’s that uncanny ability to hold someone’s stare without moving any muscles in her face – making her completely inscrutable to her enemies. And in Spy, her enemies are many.
Despite Rayna’s complete condescension, annihilation of self-esteem, and obviously the fact that she’s just an all-round awful human being, you can’t help but admire her, and want to follow her along for the ride. There’s no avoiding the fact that McCarthy is the main event, but in this instance the supporting act far out-performs the headliner. This goes to the very core of Spy – despite her coyness, there’s a lot more depth to Rayna’s character than Susan’s, and Rose Byrne constantly makes you ask the eternal question, ‘what is so engrossing about a bad boy?’ It’s got to be that hairpiece.