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The Heat

June 28, 2013
The Heat

On the heels of Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids he goes back to the comedies-with-women well for The Heat, and he comes back with another winner. From a very funny script by MADtv writer Katie Dippold, Feig pulls a tight buddy-cop comedy that can stand with the best of them, and that just happens to star two very funny women.

So we’ve got the standard mismatched pair. The uptight “good cop” is FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), and the slovenly, erratic “bad cop” is Boston Police Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). Ashburn, on the trail of a vicious drug kingpin, is sent to Boston where she quickly steps on Mullins’ toes, and the two get off to an inauspicious start.

The FBI agent out of her element is familiar ground for Bullock, after two Miss Congeniality movies, but Ashburn goes in a slightly different direction. While extremely capable and driven as a law enforcement officer, her interpersonal skills leave something to be desired. It’s partly due to her own single-minded focus, but it also has a lot to do with the double-bind faced by all professional women: she has to be twice as good as the men to be taken seriously, at which point they turn around and say she’s domineering and hard to work with.

Mullins, on the other hand, is the textbook example of a brash, loose cannon detective from a working-class Boston Irish family, complete with a brother on the other side of the law (Michael Rapaport). The only difference is that she’s a woman, and even that’s not too big a difference; one running gag involves another regular at her favorite dive bar who sports the same bedraggled hair and clothes as she does, at least until he turns around.

We all know by now the gift McCarthy has for slapstick and physical comedy. Indeed, that was pretty much the only good part of Identity Thief. But where Jason Bateman always feels a bit out of place when he gets dragged in, Bullock takes to it easily.

In fact, looking back over her credits she’s actually done quite a lot of this sort of thing, though never really as the main point of her role. The exception that stands out to me is All About Steve, which may have been panned in large part because so many people automatically put Bullock into the “Pretty Girl” box instead of the “Funny Girl” box — as if she can’t be both — and a movie that almost totally discards the first in favor of the second is just not going to fly with most audiences.

But here, working almost entirely with McCarthy, it’s clear that Bullock really is very good at this kind of physical comedy, albeit in a less splashy way than her co-star. The biggest, most boisterous laughs go to McCarthy, but the two work very well together. Add in the smooth fast-paced back-and-forth of their character-driven humor and you’ve got something really special.

Feig, for his part, picks up on a key insight: The Heat is secretly a Blaxploitation cop film except that — and stay with me here — women replace the usually male main characters instead of black actors replacing the more commonly white ones. The parallel is drawn most clearly in the opening and closing credits, but you can see it bleeding through here and there.

We see, for example, the casual misogyny these women have to navigate, just like Yaphet Kotto had to put up with Anthony Quinn’s casual racism in Across 110th Street. Maybe with Bullock and McCarthy in the lead these lines will be glaringly obvious to men in the audience who might be deaf to them in real life. Or maybe they will only resonate with the women who rarely get to see a mainstream movie that not only puts them in the driver’s seat, but offers a fun ride too.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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