Don’t ever question the power of a well-deployed Kate McKinnon.
It’s been proven time and again that her specific brand of kooky comedy can elevate anything, from the fun and loopy “Ghostbusters” remake to the questionable bachelorette-party-gone-wrong dark comedy “Rough Night.” Wind her up, set her loose and watch her wring laughs out of any flimsy, high-concept premise, like the action-comedy “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” co-written and directed by Susanna Fogel.
All you need to know is right there in the title, a play on the 1977 James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me,” which was subsequently parodied with the 1999 Austin Powers sequel “The Spy Who Shagged Me.” The next logical step in this relationship? A breakup.
When the dashing but mysterious Drew (Justin Theroux) dumps Audrey (Mila Kunis) via text, she’s heartbroken, and he’s too busy battling Lithuanian thugs to return her calls. Her best friend, Morgan (McKinnon), an oddball actress whom Drew once referred to as “a little much,” tries to cheer up Audrey with a birthday party and the attention of a randy Ukrainian man, but all too soon, the girls are ensnared in the remnants of Drew’s failed spy plot. Surfacing briefly, Drew instructs Audrey to deliver a trophy to a cafe in Vienna, and soon, the women are off, globetrotting across Europe as highly untrained yet surprisingly skillful rogue operatives.
The spy story itself is the rote, standard-issue spy stuff: double-crossings, handsome MI6 agents, treacherous Eastern European assassins (Ivanna Sakhno), harried car chases and shootouts in picturesque cafes, as well as a distressing disregard for human life. But the heroes are just a pair of clueless gals. The film seems built in part around a gag in which a sniper is instructed to take out two dumb American women, but can’t distinguish who the targets are while scoping out pairs of female tourists selfie-ing, grinding on ancient statues and puking into a river. It’s a lowest common denominator gag that ends up a cruel jab at the film’s intended audience.
But what pleases in “The Spy Who Dumped Me” isn’t the twists and turns of the plot, it’s what McKinnon fills into the interstitial moments — strange asides about how her teeth are so freakishly strong her orthodontist published a paper, some incredibly bad and prolonged French-speaking jokes about how she went to theater camp with Edward Snowden. It’s McKinnon’s general clownery — literally, her climactic moment involves a showdown on a trapeze — but it makes the lightweight material sing. Her character may be “a little much,” but that muchness is highly necessary across from Kunis’s Audrey, who is a winsome but empty cipher.
The dynamic is reflected in their CIA/MI6 counterparts, the dashing but bland Sebastian (Sam Heughan) and the smack-talking Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), who’s obsessed with his alma mater, Harvard. It’s a silly joke that’s rendered increasingly hilarious with each detail and repetition, a lot like Morgan’s elaborate acting resume.
It’s the humor housed in the connective tissue that fills up the otherwise insubstantial “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” Beloved character actors pop up — Jane Curtain, Paul Reiser, Fred Melamed — but are underused, and although Gillian Anderson cuts a striking figure as an MI6 chief (“M” prequel, anyone?), her screen time is unfortunately scanty. So thank goodness for McKinnon, who launches this middling material to greater heights through her own sheer will. Now that’s a superpower.