The Heat introduces us to Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), a talented FBI special agent whose uptight manner and know-it-all attitude makes her the bane of her male peers. When the opportunity for a promotion comes about, Sarah’s boss Hale (Demián Bichir) gives her the chance to prove she can be a team-player, by assigning her to take down a ruthless Boston drug lord with assistance from a local cop.
Unfortunately, the police officer in question is Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a foul-mouthed and tough as nails Bostonian who immediately gets off on the wrong foot with her polar opposite, in Ashburn. Can this odd couple put aside their differences, in order to solve the case – one which involves violent criminals, drug dealers, and DEA agents – and maybe even become friends in the process?
The Heat is directed by Paul Feig, whose approach to comedy – on such television shows as Arrested Development and The Office and the 2011 raunchy sleeper hit Bridesmaids – tends to be dialogue-heavy and often seems improvisational. His latest film feels like a spiritual companion to Bridesmaids in particular, for several reasons besides the fact that both movies feature women protagonists (and include McCarthy as a cast member). The final results aren’t as consistently funny or heart-warming in The Heat as they were in Feig’s previous comedienne vehicle; nevertheless, the director’s modern feminine spin on the buddy-cop formula is a satisfying experience.
Bullock and McCarthy make for a decent onscreen pairing, but the duo’s success can largely be attributed to the latter’s sheer verbal and physical comedic prowess in the film; The Heat is more worthy of McCarthy’s talents than Identity Thief from earlier this year. Feig often just steps back and keeps the camera rolling, all while the actress pulls off a variety of impressive slapstick maneuvers and verbal zingers throughout the film’s running time (and even demonstrates her dramatic chops in the movie’s few sentimental moments). Bullock, by comparison, makes for a passable and intentionally-awkward straight (wo)man, but there’s no question: she gets upstaged by McCarthy.
The film’s script by Katie Dippold (a co-showrunner on Parks and Recreation) offers a distinct – and considerate – female perspective on buddy genre conventions, in addition to contemporary gender dynamics in the workplace. Dippold accomplishes this by means that are both obvious – like a running joke where McCarthy keeps on running into her clingy one-night stands – and more subtle, such as how neither of the main characters ever use either variation on “the B-word.” Problem is, the film’s narrative is too loosely-structured at times, giving rise to comical sequences that carry on for too long; not to mention, tender emotional moments that are clunkily juxtaposed with zany comedy beats (which undermines the commentary in Dippold’s script).
Feig keeps everything moving at a healthy pace, which allows The Heat to pack enough in the way of humorous firepower and jokes where, at the end of the day, the hits outnumber the misses. Because Feig’s directorial style is a better match for TV than film – with regard to how shots are framed and edited together – The Heat lacks the necessary cinematic kinesthetics that could’ve given the humorous beats more punch and elevated the satire of the intentional low-key climax (like what Edgar Wright did in Hot Fuzz). Fortunately, the majority of the jokes are either on-target or close enough to the mark to make up for this, despite some noteworthy miscalculated attempts at humor (like an out-of-place gory gag in the third act).
The male supporting cast are, likewise, more successful than not as a whole. That includes a refreshingly buttoned-down Marlon Wayans as an FBI agent who assists Bullock and Thomas F. Wilson (a.k.a. Biff from the Back to the Future trilogy) as McCarthy’s weak-kneed boss. In addition, Dan Bakkedahl (This Is 40) plays a DEA agent, whose Albino appearance and distaste for women being on the task force make the character a (flat) joke. Similarly, the rowdy members of McCarthy’s very stereotypical Boston family – including Michael Rapaport as her brother – are a bit too cartoonish, but aren’t onscreen too long to become a significant problem.
By the time The Heat reaches its conclusion (followed by a mid-credits scene), it has provided a fair amount of belly-laughs and missed opportunities alike. The film is not a fantastic and subversive spin on the buddy-cop formula, but it does manage to mix things up without feeling like little more than a generic addition to the genre (with the traditional male leads played by women instead). Much of that success can be credited to McCarthy, who’s still on the search for a headlining vehicle that’s fully worthy of her talents.
Having said that, if you’re a dedicated fan of McCarthy’s brand of comedy – or you have enjoyed Feig’s previous funny offerings on the small/big screen – then there’s enough quality material in The Heat to make it worth a recommendation.
If you’re still on the fence about The Heat, then check out the trailer below:
The Heat is 117 minutes long and Rated R for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence. Now playing in theaters.