Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy co-star in "The Heat"
Directed by Paul Feig, it's the first female buddy cop action comedy
The duo work best when their characters aren't friends
But when they become chummy, the comedy goes downhill
A comedian who didn’t risk looking foolish wouldn’t even be in the game.
In “The Heat,” which has the scruffy honor of being the first female buddy-cop action comedy, Melissa McCarthy does more than risk looking foolish — she risks coming off as borderline insane, like a dissolute biker–turned–homeless person, like she’s royally out of control.
Is it any wonder that she shocks the audience into laughter in more scenes than not? With her naughty-angel features, and her italicized gumption that’s so stylized it turns sarcasm into a blunt-witted form of sincerity, McCarthy plays Shannon Mullins, a proudly slobby lethal weapon of a Boston police detective who favors fingerless leather gloves, keeps an arsenal of firearms (including a rocket launcher) in her refrigerator, and doles out cut-to-the-quick insults the way that most of us say ”Hello!”
Mullins gets paired with her opposite number: Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), an uptight, by-the-book FBI agent in ugly off-the-rack pants suits. Ashburn may be great at catching criminals, but she’s so smug about it that she drives even her FBI boss (Demian Bichir) crazy.
The laws of the buddy-cop comedy are as basic, familiar and inviolable as the rules of checkers. A pair of law enforcers get yoked together, and they don’t pretend to like each other. One is a tut-tutting straight-arrow, the other a wild-card screw-up. And no matter how thick the jokes get, the gods of gunfire and major vehicular damage must be served.
There’s no reason to think that this time-honored testosterone formula, with two actresses now planted at the center of it, would change all that much, and in “The Heat,” it doesn’t. Except in one crucial way.
The director, Paul Feig, possesses a highly developed radar for the alternating currents of competition and camaraderie in female relationships. As he proved in “Bridesmaids” (2011), the one other major film he’s directed, Feig understands how women who don’t like each other express their antipathy — in ways both more direct and less direct than what men do.
In “The Heat,” Feig stages scenes like Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon”) with a touch of George Cukor (“The Women”). He has made a piece of smash-and-grab policier pulp that, through the interplay of Bullock and McCarthy, spins to its own snarly/confessional feminine beat.
There’s a very funny scene in which Ashburn and Mullins, who have teamed up to nab a drug lord, go undercover at a dance club, where Mullins tries to transform Ashburn’s ”bank teller” outfit into something halfway clubby. She rips off Ashburn’s sleeves, then her pant legs, revealing a pair of Spanx. Yet even as Mullins is shredding her partner’s clothes and shredding her ego even more, her hilarious lack of mercy comes off as a version of sisterly compassion. Forget the mid-level dealer whose phone they’re out to bug. She’s trying to save this poor woman from herself.
Ashburn’s problem is that she’s all head and no instinct, a kind of Quantico-trained robot; she doesn’t know how to bond. McCarthy plays Mullins’ repugnance at her partner’s inhuman professionalism with a cringing spontaneity, as when she puts up her hand for a high five, and Ashburn has to go and wreck it by slapping and then clasping that hand. (It’s far from the only time in the movie when Mullins looks like she wants to throw up, a motif you would not see in a male buddy comedy.)
As long as these two are at loggerheads, “The Heat” has a catchy, lock-and-load hostility. It’s much more clever than, say, the two “Bad Boys” films, and less cartoonish than either the “Rush Hour” movies or the “Lethal Weapon” sequels (though not “Lethal Weapon” itself). With Bullock doing a variation on her “Miss Congeniality” geek-tomboy-who-has-to-bloom character, and McCarthy letting her acidly oddball observations rip, the two actresses make their interplay bubble.
When Mullins confuses Ashburn’s overly fussy pair of pajamas with a tuxedo, it’s all wrong, yet somehow right. And when the partners go to an old man’s bar and do shots all night, dancing to Deee-Lite’s ”Groove Is In the Heart,” the drunken craziness is infectious enough to make you want to join them.
But once these two get to be friends, the comic tension dissipates, and the film’s boilerplate drug-dealer plot takes over and goes on and on. “The Heat” is fresher than a lot of the male-centric movies it takes off from, because there’s little about aggressive guy banter that hasn’t been worn to the ground by Hollywood.
You can tell how much the times have changed when Ashburn gets an oyster-shucking knife stuck in her thigh, then pulled out, then shoved back, or when she performs a graphic emergency tracheotomy — and the blood-gushing grossness is, in every sense, a gag.
It’s genuinely jolting (in a way that, I suspect, may prove highly commercial) to see women go through these motions. But the motions are still market-tested and machine-tooled. Even when they’re channeling the happy madness of Melissa McCarthy.