As just about every review of the weekend’s No. 1 movie has noted, the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy is a delightfully smart and feminist take on the espionage genre. Writer-director Paul Feig’s comedy “lampoons sexism without abandoning sex,” Slate’s Dana Stevens wrote, citing how the movie makes its star the “object of erotic interest” while also turning her into a confident, top-notch agent. Yet there’s one place its deft treatment of its feminist hero and its nimble needling of casual sexism begins to fumble: In the character of Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), the Italian agent who claims he just can’t keep his hands off of McCarthy’s Susan Cooper, even though she repeatedly asks him to stop.
From the moment we meet him, Aldo is the human, Italian version of Pepé Le Pew. When he picks up Susan from the airport during her undercover mission, his approach to supporting his colleague is all too hands-on; he’s constantly finding excuses to grab her “bosoms” or attack her face with his tongue. It’s kind of funny, at first: Susan, focused on her mission, turns him down each time with a look of exasperation, in a manner that conjures up sympathy for her while we chuckle at his pathetic advances. For as long as it works, it’s because the joke’s clearly on him.
But just as with Pepé, Aldo’s shtick goes on far too long, and it gradually becomes creepier with each scene. Toward the end, the movie contrives to have Cooper and Aldo tied up together. The act inevitably becomes yet another uncomfortable exercise in unwanted touching: He finds a way to get on top of her, crotch squarely on her neck, while fumbling to untie her hands, and—if that weren’t icky enough—soon she describes feeling something “wet” on her neck. She continues to protest, of course, but he remains uncowed to the end: When she runs off to finish the mission, he stays back, looking longingly at her and saying, “One day maybe, super spy Susan Cooper, I will fuck you.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong in itself with depicting sexual harassment, and perhaps Aldo was less a misstep than a missed opportunity. Over the course of the movie, he becomes more and more an especially egregious version of the kind of sexual harassers many women encounter on a daily basis, a sort of walking-and-talking symbol of society’s persistent allowances for the casual sexist treatment of women. (The kind of casual sexism that, coincidentally, often comes cloaked in “jokes.”) By the end of the movie, McCarthy’s formerly shy and reserved super spy has learned to assert herself in just about every imaginable way, including through brash insults and roundhouse kicks. Yet our feminist hero never turns any of those skills on Aldo. If she can take down a whole ring of gangsters and terrorists and prevent a nuclear bomb from taking out New York City, surely she can knock a bumbling, grabby Italian agent down a few pegs.