The Heat, Review
Sparks fly between Bullock and McCarthy, even if the script fizzles.
There’s a sense of paternalism running through most action films that feel the need to superficially give their female characters a “fair shake.” Too often are they either matched up against a weaker antagonist of the same sex, or over-powered to deliver the sort of power blows that fail to convince you at 100 lb. Anne Hathaway could try to sucker punch one of the superpowered villains of Gotham City, but it reeks of weak storytelling, the kind of false obstacles and weak solutions that force mostly male storytellers to take shortcuts in order to find a way to represent the fairer sex. It’s the sort of compromise we have allowed filmmakers to make for ages; perhaps after Paul Feig’s The Heat, this will no longer be a crutch that others accept as gospel.
The Heat finds Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy matched in an odd-couple pairing, the type usually reserved for a straight man and a slovenly manchild partner. Here, Bullock is Sarah Ashburn, the straight-laced FBI agent hunting a promotion embedded in a drug-running scandal that stretches throughout the East Coast. Sent to Boston to launch a full-scale investigation, her efforts find her clashing with fiery local beat cop Sharon Mullins (McCarthy). The professional tension is predictable, even if the chemistry is not.
Bullock, long vacillating between “real acting” in dubious movies (The Blind Side, The Lake House) and deadpan pitter-patter with misfit leading men, gives a real performance as a workaholic who thinks she can win friends and influence people by overemphasizing her superiority and intellectualism. Exceptionalism is all she’s had to her name during a life spent overachieving in lieu of a real life. It feels like a cheap staple of the genre that she’s yet another self-obsessed career woman, but her obvious personality deficiencies (including her penchant for stealing and bonding with the neighbor’s lazy cat) is almost welcomed as a secondary trait: The Heat never bends over backwards to pretend that Ashburn isn’t highly qualified at her position.
Mullins, however, is more of a force of nature. Like Ashburn, she’s defined by her successful traits, but she’s also got the sort of dimensions that make her an interesting compare-and-contrast with the decidedly more upper-class Ashburn. While Ashburn’s foster-care upbringing allowed her a chance to reach beyond, Mullins cannot help but be a product of her surroundings, even if her own family has ostracized her. Mullins comes equipped with the baggage of a lower class family that keeps her roots local. These connections end up assisting the case when brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) turns out to have close ties with the investigation. It is a Screenplay 101-assisted plot contrivance that better illustrates the themes and the manner in which Ashburn and Mullins learn to cope with each other.
Most of the set-ups are rote, like the duo crashing a hot nightclub despite neither fitting in, and an all-night bender bringing them closer. Aside from that, Feig seems less interested in the story (involving a garden-variety criminal chain-of-command complete with a “surprise” twist villain) and genuinely infatuated with the interplay between Bullock and McCarthy, both of whom bounce off each other like ping pong balls of precision. Bullock is playing a role that, on paper, reads like a standard career woman, but she gives this character a comic rhythm that suggests a character stumbling to keep a faulty structure together. Her manic, borderline hyperactive attention to detail allows her a strong relatability when paired with McCarthy who imbues her character with a different sort of superiority complex; one armed with foul language and outward aggression.
The DNA of buddy comedies’ past thrives within the Bullock-McCarthy pairing. McCarthy is only a few questionable roles away from being labeled a one-trick pony, but it’s difficult to write for such a unique personality. She’s got the pizazz and rotund energy of young Jack Black with the virile vulgarity of a young Eddie Murphy. Intriguingly, McCarthy’s sexuality is not used like the weapon it was in Bridesmaids, nor as the deterrent deployed in the insipid Identity Thief. Instead, she’s seen as an attractive figure by a collection of spurned lovers who spend the film’s runtime pursuing her for a return engagement. Matched against Bullock, a conventionally attractive woman who ignores the come-ons of an attractive peer played by Marlon Wayans (who has a career as a believable alpha male waiting if casting agents could get the memo), McCarthy comes across as deeply comfortable in her own skin. For the sake of a woman in an action film, it’s major. For the sake of a woman in a mainstream American film, it’s downright revolutionary.
Feig has found approval and adulation not only for Bridesmaids, but also for co-creating Freaks And Geeks. And like that latter title, a seminal television show that has gone on to greatly influence the last decade of filmmaking, Feig’s interest lies in the marginal and flawed, even when it runs counter to the showcase requirements of The Heat. There’s little balance between the ineptitude of surrounding (mostly male) agents and criminals with the heroism of our leads and the suspense of whether these two can truly come together is absent due to the natural sparks they show together, as well as the demands of the genre. A full movie of Bullock and McCarthy bouncing off each other would be a pleasure, but this improv-heavy style simply doesn’t mesh with an attempt to tell a story that, on paper, reeks of familiarity. Perhaps in a long-form method of storytelling, you can explore these character beats and conflicts. In a film, however, it feels as if Feig is playing a weak cover of someone else’s song. Like the co-opting of “Fight The Power (Parts 1 & 2)” at the film’s beginning, it feels as if one foot is being stretched into a too-small shoe. Feig and company know the notes, but they can’t exactly twist this material into a song.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars