Film Review: The Heat

Every actor knows it’s harder to be funny than tragic, yet Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy make it look like rolling off a log in 'The Heat.' And when that log catches fire, the criminals in Boston turn into cinders.

By the very fact of its existence, director Paul Feig’s The Heat is good news, since the buddy genre for women, as miniscule as it’s been (and with the one exception of 1987’s Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler and Shelley Long), has been in melodrama. And traditionally, female comics even including Lucille Ball, and her straight-person/cohort Vivian Vance, and—going backwards—Imogene Coca, and even Martha Raye have had to stick within the smaller screen (not so bad these days to be on television, of course). Tina Fey has jumped to feature films, the exception that makes the rule. Bridesmaids, as wonderfully comic as it was, and Feig’s breakthrough work, was a group tour de force. And to go one further, The Heat has lodged itself into a male-dominated genre, the buddy-cop movie.

There are all sorts of things to say about this, the most obvious being that this is exactly what feminist and other critics have been crying out for. Moreover, there is a female screenwriter, Katie Dippold (“Parks and Recreation”), as icing on the cake.

Wow! Does that ever sound pretentious, especially after you’ve been LOL’ing like a mad hyena for nearly two hours (and were still sorry to see the film end) at the antics of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Finally we have two high-profile women actors who aren’t afraid to take pratfalls, to look ridiculous. I can’t think of anything funnier, to be blunt, than McCarthy squeezing herself through a car window. Her size, her messy look, are not at odds with her appeal, though; as she says to Bullock, “I put out my sexuality through motion.”

As FBI special agent Sarah Ashburn, Bullock is an overachiever with few social skills from New York, newly arrived in Boston and trying to get a promotion and impress her boss by solving some murders. The only thing is, this turf belongs to somebody else: Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a detective for the Boston Police Department with a street approach and attitude-plus. Which method, and which woman, will win out is the ostensible topic of the film.

The Heat, while about criminal busting and bashing, is also about the look, and the Makeover, that cinematic staple. And it’s Mullins who has the better sense of style—or, anyway, street style. When she yanks the barrette from the side of Ashburn’s prim schoolgirlish bob, and Ashburn tries to defend herself, Mullins says: Sure, I wear a barrette, but it’s where it should be, on the top of my head. She’s a hip mama, comfortable in her skin, where the by-the-numbers Ashburn is awkward as all get-out.

In their version of the odd couple, or Laurel and Hardy, they learn from each other after some initial hostility, their friendship expands—and look out, world! The film also takes on the question of how to get ahead professionally in a man’s world, while touching on issues of family and relationships.

That’s a tall order, but the laughs and even the ribaldry of the film carry it out. “Was he a hearing man?” is the tart query from Mullins when Ashburn tells her she was married once, a corrective comment on Ashburn’s interpersonal style.

Brisk editing by Jay Deuby and Brent White keeps up the pace throughout The Heat, the jumpy energy signaled by a great use of Isley Brothers music in the movie’s beginning. It will most definitely be an action movie. But The Heat is more about finding strength through rapprochement. Guys used to call it teamwork. Women call it being friends.

On another, even more universal level, the movie takes up ways of being. “I’m intuitive. I say what I feel. I’m usually right,” declares McCarthy-as-Mullins. The more studious Ashburn begs to differ: “It’s not about luck” she avers, with the hopeful determination of the autodidact.

This talk is all to the good, especially in a rollicking film, but what makes it work ultimately is not the script, or maybe even the direction. It’s all about the timing. When to deliver the line. Bullock and McCarthy are on par with each other here. But it’s McCarthy’s film, as fine as Bullock is.

As for the critic who called McCarthy tractor-sized—you know who you are—let’s be charitable and say he probably meant tractor-sized talent.