So much of The Heat, the latest film by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, should not work. And yet it does, almost exclusively on the strength of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as both comedic and dramatic actresses. It takes a very tired buddy cop premise, in which two very different officers are forced to work together, one by-the-books and uptight, the other crass and street-smart, and even though they butt heads at at first, they eventually learn to find the strengths in both of them! It’s a cliched, formulaic storytelling trope used in way too many comedies (Lethal Weapon, Men in Black, Rush Hour, the list goes on and on). What separates The Heat from being just another spot under the “Buddy cop comedies” category on your Netflix Watch Instantly suggestions is how different it feels from the standard buddy cop film. Yes, there is a fair share of outrageous, slapstick-style humor, but there’s also a great deal of heart. It’s not the kind of “heart” Hollywood likes to awkwardly tack on to the end of raunchy comedies; it’s a real, earned sense of female friendship that is rarely seen in a film industry that seems stubbornly committed to pitting females against each other.
Our first introduction to these characters is through Sarah Ashburn (Bullock), an uptight FBI agent from New York who does everything right and knows damn well that she deserves a promotion. Her boss, Hale (Demián Bichir), assigns Ashburn to a case in Boston to investigate a drug kingpin named Larkin. When she arrives on the scene in Boston, she encounters Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a police officer with a penchant for going above and beyond with a “whatever it takes” attitude. Mullins steals Ashburn’s file on Larkin to learn more about the case and coerces Ashburn into partnering up with her on the grounds that she knows the local Boston area. What ensues next is a slew of comedic scenes that find the mismatched pair trying to fit in at a local nightclub, learning more about Mullins’ family and interacting with armed drug dealers. Eventually, the pair begins to see each other’s strengths through each survived experience and adapt accordingly.
Though I tend to be biased towards films that manage to properly execute a really good story, I found myself not caring about the strength of the film’s story as a whole. In fact, when the film directly tries to follow the preordained narrative, it feels rather clunky and forced in comparison to the numerous gags and jokes stuffed into its 117 minutes. The overall story of Ashburn and Mullins trying to figure out the identity of Larkin is surprisingly weak, especially when his identity seems so obvious from the beginning of the character’s introduction. Ultimately, the film really becomes about the various jokes and the relationship between Ashburn and Mullins. Bullock has a natural sense of comedic timing which helps since most of her comedy is derived from dialogue and mannerisms. It is McCarthy, though, that is truly the standout here. Though her performance here isn’t that different from her Academy Award-nominated performance in Bridesmaids, or even much of a change from this year’s Identity Thief, the actress was simply born for comedy. She has such an aggressive style that is relatively innovative for a female comedic movie actress and gets to be the comic relief through most of the film. Her scenes chasing down criminals in the streets of Boston are some of the most balls-to-the-wall laugh-out-loud scenes I’ve seen all year, with McCarthy throwing vanity to the wayside and giving her all for every joke.
There is a predictable yet comforting feel to this film that doesn’t necessarily damn it in the ways that sort of feeling is usually analyzed in cynical think pieces. Most of the articles surrounding this film have been with the ongoing narrative of “Wow, women can actually be funny and be leads in a successful comedy film!” While it’s clear that Bullock and McCarthy are bonafide movie stars at this point in their careers, it still shouldn’t be that much of a shock for a movie like The Heat to gross over $100 million at the box office. Yes, this film is female-centric, and yes, that doesn’t tend to happen very often in successful comedies, but prospective filmgoers saw the trailer, laughed at many of the jokes, and said “I want to see that, it looks funny!” When it comes down to it, the writer and producers behind The Heat set out to make this film with the intention of making you laugh through a proven comedic narrative, and they succeeded in that regard. It may not have this year’s most complex story set to film, but it’s not trying to be anything bigger than it needs to be, and in this film climate, that kind of attitude is refreshing.
MVP: Melissa McCarthy
Nothing big; maybe Golden Globe nominations for Bullock and McCarthy.
Photo: 20th Century Fox