They don’t get along onscreen, but Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy have a field day in “The Heat.” While the title refers to the reluctant buddy-cop pair, it may just as well describe the packaging philosophy behind this R-rated comedy: Grab director Paul Feig as “Bridesmaids” breaks B.O. records, give him an on-fire spec script from ex-“Conan” intern Katie Dippold and attach two Oscar-forged stars, Bullock hot off her “The Blind Side” win and McCarthy about to be nominated. With elements like these, the pic’s shoot-first, fix-it-later approach sacrifices action for consistent laughs, delivering on the front that should make “The Heat” a hit.
Dippold’s script is hardly the first distaff-driven comedy to demonstrate that a pair of lady cops can hold their own in a notoriously testosterone-heavy field — with all due respect to Ginger Rogers, this duo accomplishes everything the guys can, backward and in tactical boots. From “Feds” to “D.E.B.S.,” it’s well-trod territory, and yet, the key to Feig’s approach comes in embracing the lesson of “Bridesmaids”: namely, that female comedies needn’t be dainty, but can get just as raunchy as their Y-chromosome counterparts, even without Judd Apatow attached.
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Feig, who got his big break creating “Freaks and Geeks” 13 years back, no doubt owes much of his approach to Apatow, his fellow “Geeks” exec producer. It certainly shows in the improv-heavy film’s tendency to run longer than the material demands, as well as the generally shaggy way the funniest subplots get the most screentime (how many sports-themed Jesus paintings can one pic support?), while others dead-end entirely: Despite great lengths taken to bug a criminal’s cell phone, the two cops never bother to listen in on his calls.
Breaking it down, “The Heat” has been engineered to deliver the laughs, and the result certainly does, despite coming alarmingly near to botching the procedural elements along the way. The bumpy car chases, police interrogations and heavy-artillery standoffs work only insofar as Feig can rely on humor to steal the scene. Lucky for him, he had two editors to assemble a sometimes-uneven cut that puts the funny forward, and two gifted comedic actresses in Bullock and McCarthy to back him up.
Resurrecting a fair amount of her “Miss Congeniality” persona, Bullock plays Sarah Ashburn, a socially awkward FBI agent angling for a promotion. There’s no clumsiness here, however: Ashburn is aces at her job, just totally devoid of people skills. Assigned to bring down a Boston drug lord, she immediately steps on the toes of the top cop on the local beat, a Dirty Harry type named Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) whose track record evidently excuses her own equally abrasive style. Naturally, these two incompatible personalities will have to work together to crack the case.
For better or worse, the mismatched chemistry clearly extends behind the scenes as well. Whereas McCarthy flourishes in an ad lib-friendly environment, Bullock is stuck playing straight woman. It’s impossible to forget that Bullock is merely pretending to be unlikable and robotic, as if the filmmakers had a stern, Clarice Starling-style character in mind, where she easily could have played a charismatic desk jockey who simply wasn’t accustomed to field work. By contrast, McCarthy easily disappears into her role, to the extent that it’s tricky to distinguish where Mullins’ personality ends and the actress’s begins.
Where another script might have treated the gender dynamic strictly as subtext, Dippold grapples the issue head-on, conceiving multiple scenes in which Ashburn and Mullins must justify themselves to a hostile, all-male workplace. In stakeout mode, they quickly run afoul of two misogynist DEA agents (Dan Bakkedahl and Taran Killam), whose insults are trumped by the fact that one of them is albino — perhaps the last minority unprotected by political correctness. Mullins doesn’t take guff from anyone. In the office, she retaliates against an unsupportive boss by conducting a hilarious, humiliating search for his missing “mouse balls.” And whenever shots are fired, chances are she’s aiming for the perp’s crotch.
In addition to emasculating the standard buddy-cop cliches, the film goes out of its way to de-objectify its two stars, never stooping to that tacky slow-pan trick where the camera ogles the characters from the ground up while pole-dancing music sets the tone. In fact, when it comes to the soundtrack, music supervisor Randall Poster has assembled a lineup of funky, high-attitude hip-hop tracks, nearly all of them performed by women. By emphasizing both the humor and the empowerment aspects of the picture, “The Heat” easily overcomes the occasional clunkiness along the way.