Once a reliable formula in the '80s and '90s, the buddy cop comedy has fallen on hard times of late, with occasional bright spots like 21 Jump Street mostly surrounded by such dreck as Cop Out. Although entirely disparate in quality, both those films are alike in the way they continue the genre's relentless focus on dudes, with women sidelined or wholly absent from the frame. So what makes Paul Feig's The Heat innovative in its own modest way isn't the plot or the big and brash comic sensibility, both of which are standard buddy cop fare. Instead, it's the way the film lets the ladies -- specifically Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy -- have all the fun, while the guys are relegated to the back of the squad car.
And Bullock and McCarthy really are having fun in this charmingly shambling odd couple comedy, which takes their established screen personas and smashes them together to see what kind of sparks fly. That means Bullock is back in The Proposal mode as uptight, no-nonsense, married-to-her-job federal agent Sarah Ashburn, while McCarthy revives the mouthy bull-in-a-china-shop character she introduced in Bridesmaids (her first collaboration with Feig) and honed in Identity Thief as Boston-based police officer Shannon Mullins. The two cross paths when Ashburn nabs the plum assignment of finding a big-time drug dealer who happens to be operating on Mullins's turf. Obviously, their partnership doesn't have a particularly auspicious beginning, with Shannon physically and verbally intimidating Sarah and Sarah trying to freeze Shannon out of the investigation altogether. As much as they try to fight it, though, professional respect and personal friendship are just 117 minutes away... provided they don't kill each other first.
While a more adventurous movie might have tried to mix thing up a bit by having the two stars swap roles, The Heat is the kind of formulaic genre exercise that at least understands how to execute its formula in a spirited, enjoyable way. As with Bridesmaids, Feig gives the material and the performers plenty of room to breathe, an approach that McCarthy in particular benefits from. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that at least 75 percent of her verbal hand grenades were improvised on set in an effort to get her co-star to crack up. But Bullock holds it together throughout and gives as good as she gets, particularly once Sarah abandons decorum and lets her own freak flag fly...
Those who were put off by the obligatory kissy-face romantic stuff in Bridesmaids will be happy to hear that any heteronormative love affairs (mainly represented by Marlon Wayans as an FBI desk jockey who has a crush on Sarah) are confined to the margins and the focus is first and foremost on the relationship these women have with each other. And unlike the risible Identity Thief, McCarthy is never required to play out a beast-to-beauty like transformation that insults her appearance and general demeanor in the guise of self-improvement. Shannon is the cool, confident hero of the movie -- the Riggs to Sarah's Murtaugh (with the frizzy mane to boot) with very little of his emotional baggage. Even Bridesmaids's Megan was eventually revealed to be insecure at her core, which resulted in her blustery behavior. Self-doubt isn't part of Shannon's vocabulary and it's refreshing to see McCarthy freed from having to apologize for the havoc her characters wreak. (That said, I do think it's time for the actress to expand her big-screen repertoire, if only to placate those of us still nostalgic for her Sookie persona from back in the Gilmore Girls days.)
If The Heat isn't as consistently hilarious as Bridesmaids, that's due to the way the "cop" portion of the buddy cop comedy formula almost inevitably intrudes on the "comedy" portion. Although screenwriter Katie Dippold keeps the drug lord narrative fairly simple, it's also deeply uninteresting, never more so than in the third act when the duo have to finally crack down on the bad guys with guns rather than gags. (The only recent buddy cop movie that handled the transition from comedy to action movie effectively was Hot Fuzz, where Edgar Wright smartly turned the action into comedy through direct homages to other movies and wonderfully clever staging. Feig may be a skilled choreographer of laughs, but he lacks Wright's formal dexterity behind the camera.) Even there, though, it's great to see Bullock and McCarthy firmly in command, making their own collars without a male cavalry riding to their rescue at the last minute. In terms of its content, The Heat may be more of the same buddy cop stuff, but the stars lend it extra punch where it counts.
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