With the exception of Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect, male-centered comedies have continued to hold sway at the studios. The Heat, Paul Feig’s follow-up to Bridesmaids, achieves a feat not attempted until now: an all-female buddy cop movie that, for all its flaws, amounts to one of the ballsier attempts at the genre.
Women have always had a place in the buddy-cop genre, but not an admirable one; usually they’re half-naked femmes fatales or damsels in distress. Rather than perpetuate that formula, Feig places his leading ladies, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, at the center of the action, and even makes them more headstrong than the men surrounding them. In many ways, The Heat is your run-of-the-mill buddy-cop film: the Odd Couple pairing, the transition from foes to friends, the enjoyably preposterous “two against the world” climaxes. Despite these clichés, Bullock and McCarthy are fully realized characters with credible baggage and motivation. Their personalities clash, but they are united by their identities as outsiders: Bullock’s smarty-pants approach to her FBI work aggravates her male bosses; McCarthy’s brash street smarts as a cop send her male contemporaries cowering in fear.
Ashburn (Bullock) is highly skilled, but her condescending nature—and her knack for making other agents look bad—buys her a ticket from New York to Boston for an assignment headed by Detective Mullins (McCarthy). Unfortunately for Ashburn, Mullins doesn’t like other authorities, FBI or otherwise, on her turf. Per formula, a major rift develops as they play good-cop/bad-cop when investigating a drug lord who likes chopping up his victims. Ashburn loosens up, Mullins gains some dignity, they raise some hell, and so forth.
The casting of Bullock and McCarthy—who easily play traditionally masculine types, strong-willed and forthright—makes The Heat more than a gimmicky retread of a well-worn genre. They’re a female version of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello: Bullock as the straight man, McCarthy as the baggy-pants comic, both getting into a series of fine messes. These roles are well established in the world of comedy, but it took McCarthy’s arrival on the scene for the pairing to be played to the hilt. Unlike more slender comedienne contemporaries (except perhaps Bullock), McCarthy is comfortable taking charge and throwing herself bodily into physical comedy.
Take, for example, an early inspired bit in which McCarthy’s car is so tightly parked into her spot that she needs to go through her window and through the window of another car to exit successfully. Bullock’s appearance—chiseled and neatly maintained to a borderline-OCD extent—feeds directly into her uptight character. In a running joke, she keeps mistaking her butch, unkempt partner for a biker dude. But Feig and Katie Dippold (in her first feature screenplay credit) turns the “normal” into weird in this pairing, and the disadvantageous into comedy gold, without getting lazy.
The men of the buddy cop genre are usually hot-headed and quick to act (and almost always deemed right). The Heat upends this cliché, and maybe even in a way that echoes the feelings of many female professionals in the workplace. Despite being a lower-ranked agent, Bullock has much more foresight than her doubtful boss, who’s tired of her being too damned smart. The johns and drug dealers McCarthy faces are dumber than they think they are. Thomas F. Wilson is brilliantly cast as McCarthy’s beyond-emasculated boss, obliterating his famous Biff Tannen (Back to the Future) persona. Despite being constantly outnumbered, Bullock and McCarthy manage to prevent themselves from being overpowered by the masculine machine. The Heat is a rare film in which the men, usually in charge, are given the least amount of dignity and power.
Golden as these moments are, The Heat suffers from unevenly distributed material and talent. Familiar faces—Bill Burr, Kaitlin Olson, Jane Curtin—are underused, with McCarthy receiving most of the laughs. Without the comedy all-stars of Bridesmaids, she’s left to keep the film afloat. The storyline itself is picked up from buddy-cop films past—I feel there’s some unwritten rule stating that they all need a scene on a pier—and it is by no means sequel-proof. The Heat has the chops for setting itself apart, but it seems too content with being a tweaked throwback.