Amid the usually bloated summer-movie landscape, we’ve seen some comedies put energizing spins on tired conceits. Seth Rogen’s This Is the End found a way past the bro-comedy dead end by being unusually self-deprecating. And now The Heat, from Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, has breathed some new life into the buddy-cop comedy with a simple gender-switch.
The film pairs Sandra Bullock — in her first lead role since her Oscar turn in 2009’s The Blind Side — and Melissa McCarthy — taking a second stab at comic co-lead after the earlier 2013 DOA Identity Thief, opposite Jason Bateman. Bullock is uptight, ambitious FBI agent Sarah Ashburn, sent to Boston to track down a murderous drug kingpin and earn a promotion she probably already deserves. There she finds a mutually reluctant partner in Beantown detective Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a rough-and-tumble townie who wipes the scum from her neighborhood streets even when it isn’t her turn to care.
The Heat is not a spoof of the genre so much as a reclamation and reinvention. The crime-flick plotting is strictly perfunctory, particularly in a finale so familiar (a barren warehouse full of heavies!) you start rethinking the spoof thing. But the film finds a purpose in both its lead performances and the small changes brought on by screenwriter Katie Dippold (of television’s Parks & Recreation). You sense that the only buddy-cop movie worth seeing at this late date might be the one starring and written by women and directed by a gay filmmaker.
Both Ashburn and Mullins are intense, highly competent professionals and loners steering their way through what your college thesis might call the patriarchal maze of male-dominated workplaces. They’re a classic odd couple but find their way to a wary sisterhood on the job, and this feminization of the genre is the source of much of what’s both good and surprising about The Heat.
The Heat overdoes it in making McCarthy’s character slovenly and then — as in Bridesmaids — overcompensates by overdoing her sexuality. I’m probably in the minority, but I still associate McCarthy with scatterbrained sidekick Sookie in the television series Gilmore Girls, where she first proved she could be charming and funny without being deployed as a sight gag.
Still, McCarthy’s performance is the heart of The Heat, and I think she’s even better here than in her overpraised turn in Bridesmaids. She finds more of an identifiable human beneath the comic caricature here.
Like almost all mainstream comedies now, The Heat is more vulgar than it needs to be, with Bullock snorting a peanut out of her nose, more F bombs dropped than in a mid-’80s Eddie Murphy routine, and more third-act bloodletting than seems necessary.
But it’s littered with good throwaway bits (including what I can only hope is a Roger Ebert tribute “Fruitcart!” gag) and has much more heart and humor than we’ve come to expect from movies like this.