Bullock, McCarthy Carry "The Heat" To The Promised Land

Paul Feig is onto something. Two years on from “Bridesmaids,” the director is right back at it, attempting to claim a male-dominated arena – this time, the buddy cop genre – for the ladies. “The Heat” is a furious cyclone of four-letter words and untamed violence, headlined by two women willing to go to the ends of the earth for a laugh. It takes a special kind of film to evoke uproarious laughter from the sight of Sandra Bullock being repeatedly stabbed in the leg, but “The Heat” does exactly that. Its disappointingly prosaic story keeps the project from greatness, but its laughs are marvelous – and rarely in short supply.

Sandra Bullock is no stranger to the A-list, but her co-star, Melissa McCarthy, has come on strong lately, melding on-screen fearlessness with the increasingly rare ability to carry a movie to both critical and commercial success. The duo star as a buttoned-up FBI agent, Ashburn (Bullock), and a foul-mouthed Boston cop, Mullins (McCarthy). When Ashburn is assigned to one of Mullins’ drug cases, the pair immediately clash, the latter laying waste to everything and everyone in sight with torrents of skillfully placed f-bombs.

The film is undeniably a slow starter. Cliches are inherent in the characters and the story they inhabit, making the first act a bit of a chore. The bad-guys-selling-drugs yarn is both overly familiar and unnecessarily convoluted, meaning the narrative is never an asset and quite frequently a roadblock. Ultimately, we’re forced to surrender ourselves to the leads when it becomes clear that they’re the opening act, the headliner, and everything in between. But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Initially, McCarthy’s verbal acrobatics come across as one-note, but as the lead characters develop, their quirks become essential to their evolution. Mullins’ crassness is funny, but more importantly it speaks to who she is and why she is that way. The same is true of Ashburn, particularly in relation to a recurring gag involving a tabby cat. Her social ineptitude isn’t reduced to a few throwaway jokes, but instead carefully crafted into the fibers of her character’s arc.

The supporting cast – including Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Jane Curtin, and Thomas F. Wilson – is large, but mostly irrelevant. These characters, including Mullin’s dysfunctional extended family, are good for the occasional laugh, but they’re mostly placeholders, setting up McCarthy and Bullock to come in for the kill, as they often do. When they’re on-screen together, the film is a resounding success – from a riotous drinking montage to the discovery of Mullins’ outlandish weapons cache.

Writer Katie Dippold is perfectly in tune with her director here, subverting gender roles while simultaneously celebrating specific corners of them. Yes, she’s clearly suggesting that women are as capable of being good cops as men are, if not better, but in using police work as a metaphor for comedy, the overt commandeering of the genre is never on the nose. This allows us to not see Bullock and McCarthy as fish out of water, but as perfectly in their element, even more so than that of their male counterparts. And the comedy is better off for it.

But to heap praise on Feig and company for going out of their way to make a vulgar buddy cop movie starring two women is to not only belabor the point – it sort of misses it entirely. “The Heat” is never “Beverly Hills Cop” with women. It’s “The Heat,” and that’s why it’s so great. That the story is a total throwaway is disappointing, but it might be a surreptitious stroke of genius. By giving the spotlight entirely to Bullock and McCarthy, Feig has put his foot down. There is no male monopoly on being funny, and the performances here – McCarthy, especially – are proof positive. To this point, “The Heat” is the funniest film of 2013. The gauntlet has been thrown down, guys.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 28, 2013
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film
Director: Paul Feig
Screenwriter: Katie Dippold
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demián Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence)