Two weeks ago, a new study concluded female film critics like movies with female leads as well as movies with female directors more than their male counterparts. Through sheer coincidence, Hollywood is offering up two such female-directed, female-led movies on wide release this weekend. The first is YA dystopian adaptation The Darkest Minds. The other is The Spy Who Dumped Me. This is a story about the latter.
As I left a preview screening of The Spy Who Dumped Me last weekend, I happened to exit out the same door as a short, curly-haired older woman with a half-eaten tub of popcorn in one hand and a walking cane in the other. Think of her as everyone’s grandma. I was already pre-writing a review of the film in my head. “An uber-violent, mildly funny ode to female friendship that leans far too hard on Kate McKinnon’s improv skills” seemed like a fair summation of what I regarded as a wildly inconsistent buddy comedy. The older woman, completely unprovoked, looked up at me and the person I’d seen the movie with and excitedly asked, “Didn’t you just love it?”
Wait, what? Why would anyone truly love The Spy Who Dumped Me? It’s a complete tonal mishmash of a film. The plot, as perfectly distilled in all the trailers, sees Mila Kunis playing a thirty-year-old retail worker who discovers her ex-boyfriend (Justin Theroux) is actually a spy caught up in an international conspiracy. She, along with her roommate and best friend played by McKinnon, get dragged into the middle of it and end up pingponging from one Eastern Europe location to another, presumably racking up untold credit card debt in the process. They happen to have the MacGuffin that everyone wants, but they don’t know who to trust.
In classic spy comedy fashion, they are surrounded by hyper-competent assassins, spooks, and mysterious bureaucrats (such as Gillian Anderson, doing her best impression of Judi Dench’s M from the Bond movies), yet everything they know about shooting a gun comes from video games. Through every twist and turn which awaits them, all they can truly rely on is their unbreakable friendship.
Certainly a workable premise for a movie, but in director/co-writer Susanna Fogel’s hands the jokes are often flat and the frequent John Wick-esque explosions of fast cut action and gore too jarring and at odds with the rest of the film, even if the action itself is expertly staged. Think of a version of Spy with better action scenes but fewer jokes. It’s a classic case of great cast, good premise, poor execution, which equates to wait to rent or stream for the parts that work but don’t waste money on a movie ticket.
Try telling that to the little old lady directly outside the Regal Cinema 20 last Friday night. As we walked down the hall and into the lobby, she raved about McKinnon’s performance and the story’s overall message about friendship, about how romance comes secondary to companionship and how there aren’t nearly enough movies like this. She laughed and laughed throughout the movie and was laughing just as hard recounting her favorite jokes to us. “Those women had fun and so did I” were her parting words to us.
Which movie did she see? Because I’d love to be laughing as hard as she was.
We all have different tastes and are free to like what we like. Obviously. But had I just walked into the very same thing San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film warned about two weeks ago when it reported female critics are more generous to female-led films than men? As a dude, does my tepid support of last year’s male-led buddy comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, for example, compared to my current takedown of the female-led The Spy Who Dumped Me mean I am falling into the cliche?
Of course, “eccentric old lady talked to in a movie theater lobby” is hardly a worthy substitute for a genuine female film critic. So, in replication of the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Televisions’ methods I took to RottenTomatoes to see if the same kind of gender bias is playing out among all reviewers. Here’s what I found:
As of this writing, there are 91 reviews of The Spy Who Dumped Me from RottenTomatoes-recognized critics. 68 (or 74%) of them are from men, 23 (or 26%) from women. As a frame of reference, according to the Center for the Study of Women 68% of RottenTomatoes critics are male versus 32% female, meaning The Spy Who Dumped Me’s reviews are just slightly more male-heavy than usual. Overall, the critics have come down fairly hard:
However, women have indeed been slightly more receptive to this film’s charms. Only 33% of male critics have either directly graded or had RottenTomatoes grade The Spy Who Dumped Me for them as Fresh; compare that to the 52% of female critics who think the film deserves a Fresh rating.
RottenTomatoes, it must be noted, is a notoriously flawed metric. Stephanie Zacharek’s Time review is recorded as Fresh even though it’s not entirely overflowing with praise, “The Spy Who Dumped Me, a well-meaning handspring of a movie that doesn’t necessarily land on its feet.” Likewise, Kate Taylor’s rated-Rotten review in The Globe and Mail isn’t without complement: “Writers David Iserson and Fogel have clear and lofty ambitions here. With Kunis’s sly comic talents providing a foil for the wacky wonders that McKinnon offers, they want to make a comedy entirely driven by its female leads. They also want to create a genuinely thrilling action movie full of car chases, gunfire and explosions […] Initially, they succeed admirably, but ultimately they flounder.”
Also, are talking low sample sizes here – just 23 female critics! – and the results, no matter how you slice them, are hardly a ringing endorsement for The Spy Who Dumped Me. This does, however, support San Diego State University’s findings about gender bias on RottenTomatoes.
(It’s worth noting: 80% of RottenTomatoes readers like the movie whereas only 37% of critics do. “Those women had fun and so did I” is apparently not unique to just little old ladies who chat up strangers outside theaters.)
All of this touches on the larger conversations we are currently having about the state of film criticism and the need for more diverse voices. It’s why something like the forthcoming female-centric Rotten Tomatoes alternative Cherry Picks exists.
So, I’ll close by getting out of the way and handing the mic to Den of Geek’s Kayti Burt, who penned one of the most enthusiastic Spy Who Dumped Me‘s reviews I’ve read so far:
The prioritization of the female experience outside of romantic relationships is one of The Spy Who Dumped Me‘s greatest strengths, as female characters in spy films are all too often confined by their role as a sex and/or love object. Kunis in particular has romantic subplots but she is never defined by them.
The picture is not about a Smurfette-like lone wolf succeeding in a man’s world, a la Atomic Blonde, but rather about two women who draw power from their friendship and the traditionally feminine qualities they possess in a much-needed subversion of not only the spy genre, but most studio fare […]
The Spy Who Dumped Me arguably tries to be too many things—a buddy comedy, a spy film, a European travel adventure—and doesn’t fully succeed at all of them, but it does succeed where it needs to by constructing a central female friendship that makes viewers both laugh and care. And by putting that successful element inside of a buddy spy comedy travel adventure, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t just offer audiences a hell of a fun, escapist ride, it offers moviegoers something they have never seen before.