The high-concept description of The Heat is that it?s a cop-buddy movie with women, which can be seen as something of an anomaly, or even a breakthrough, in this age of testosterone-stupefied cinema. Directed by Paul Feig, whose Bridesmaids was a milestone in the emergence of uninhibited, woman-driven nonromantic comedy, The Heat wears its feminism lightly and proudly, though not always comfortably.
A simpler, and probably more relevant, way to describe this movie would be to say that it?s around two hours of Melissa McCarthy spewing profanity while Sandra Bullock cringes, flutters her arms and sighs in exasperation. If you need another reason to see it, I can?t in good conscience supply one, since the story is sloppy and thin, many of the jokes are strained or tired, and the level of violence is a bit jarring. But the volatile chemistry between McCarthy and Bullock is something to behold, and carries The Heat through its lazy conception and slapdash execution.
The code of the mismatched comic duo was long ago inscribed in the DNA of modern entertainment. The canonical pair (typically but not always male) consists of a prig and a slob, a Felix and an Oscar or, if that reference seems overly narrow or confoundingly dated, a Bateman and a Galifianakis. It?s obvious enough how McCarthy and Bullock fit into this taxonomy, since McCarthy has already served as the Galifianakis to Jason Bateman?s Bateman in Identity Thief. It might, however, be noted that Bullock made her name as something of a Galifianakis to Keanu Reeves?s Bateman in Speed. But this is getting much too academic.
So anyway: Bullock plays Sarah Ashburn, an FBI hotshot whose supreme competence and extreme arrogance rub her co-workers the wrong way. Her boss (Demian Bichir) thinks these qualities might stand in the way of a promotion, and sends her to Boston to see whether she can work with others in a case that shares jurisdiction with the local police department. Ashburn?s experiences in early scenes efficiently set up a theme that will be revisited throughout The Heat, which is the routine sexism that women must contend with in professional situations. Although Ashburn is smarter than her colleagues, she still has to endure their overt condescension and thinly veiled resentment. ?No wonder she?s single,? one of them sneers after she?s just shown up a room full of men by finding hidden drugs and guns that had eluded them.
But her singleness - her only companion is the neighbor?s cat she pathetically pretends is her own - makes Ashburn the butt of many subsequent jokes. Much later, she reveals that she was once married. ?Was he a hearing man?? Detective Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) wonders aloud. By then, Mullins and Ashburn are acting out their own quasi-marital drama of clashing temperaments and contrasting physiognomies.
They are a consistently amusing odd couple. Mullins, a tornado of aggression whose favorite idioms are both anatomically precise and anatomically impossible, terrorizes suspects and supervisors alike. When she finds Ashburn interviewing one of her collars, she erupts into the fury that is her default setting. But, of course, the two of them end up working together to bring down a drug kingpin and learning, more or less, to appreciate each other.
Usually, this transaction would involve the discovery of a middle ground: The unruly partner would learn the value of restraint, while the uptight one would loosen up. But that isn?t quite what happens here, since the film (written by Katie Dippold) and the audience are consistently on Mullins? side. Yes, her hygiene is questionable and her manners less than polished, but she is otherwise a role model, her brash sexual and professional self-confidence a perpetual rebuke to the insecurity that lurks behind Ashburn?s buttoned-up competitiveness.
McCarthy, who has shown sweetness on Mike & Molly and over-the-top mania just about everywhere else since Bridesmaids, is a verbal and physical dynamo. She evokes performers of the past - male and female, slender and portly, Gleasonesque, Stoogelike and Burnettian - but scrambles their influences, along with her own peculiar quickness and grace, into something fresh and unpredictable.
Someday, perhaps, she will find a fitting feature-length showcase for her gifts. The Heat, while it provides her with a serviceable scaffolding, is not a very good movie. Its script is a rehash of the obvious and the pointless, without the knowing self-mockery of 21 Jump Street. And it suffers from the familiar, crippling desire to be naughty without risking offense. So there are jokes at the expense of albinos and people with Boston accents - ?You a narc?? one of Mullins? brothers asks Ashburn, but of course she doesn?t understand him, because he doesn?t pronounce the ?r? and she hasn?t seen Ted, The Departed or Good Will Hunting - and halfhearted race- and class-based gags.
There is also a parade of sitcom players, some gunshots and explosions and an emergency tracheotomy that seems to want to match the diarrhea scene in Bridesmaids for gross hilarity. (Surgery, oddly enough, is not as funny as scatology.) A fairly standard summertime R-rated comedy, in other words, which I guess could be described as a kind of progress.