The origin of Twentieth Century Fox’s The Heat, a detective buddy comedy featuring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, most likely involved a familiar pitch that probably went something like this: “a straight-laced FBI Agent looking to secure a promotion is forced to partner with an unconventionally boisterous Boston detective to unravel a local drug ring.” This being screenwriter Katie Dippold’s (Parks and Recreation) first feature, it comes as little surprise that plot devices sometimes occur out of convenience, rather than necessity, and that the script’s few ”big” narrative twists emerge predictably and on structural cue. More likely, and in fairness to Dippold, it could have been Fox wanting to stick to its formulaic guns.
Skeletally, this is very much a buddy-cop comedy in the vein of The Other Guys (2010), and to some degree, the most recent adaptation of Starsky and Hutch (2004). The beginning of the film feels like it slips out of director Paul Feig’s hands a bit, and I would argue that his previous blockbuster, Bridesmaids (2011), suffers from a similar loss of control (more on Bridesmaids later).
But Dippold, along with the unrivaled improvisational prowess of Melissa McCarthy, still manages to riddle The Heat with memorable moments and one-line zingers as she’s successfully done on television for years. And despite a rocky first sequence, the Mullins (McCarthy) and Ashburn (Bullock) dynamic eventually fires on all cylinders as expected.
What’s fascinating about The Heat, what makes it worth the price of admission besides watching two consummate professionals feed off one another, is that it turns the buddy-cop genre upside down by casting two female leads as well as a Hispanic FBI Area Director (Demian Bichir) and a black love interest (Marlon Wayans). As the preeminent cultural transmitter of the 20th century, the cinema has a rich history of reflecting shifting societal attitudes within the context of a larger social framework. The Heat’s already impressive box office numbers are clearly emblematic of changing sentiments toward women carrying the cinematic torch.
A (Very) Brief History:
Arguably more than any other genre, comedy has historically been at the mercy of masculine hegemony. In recent years, domestic and international success stories surrounding R-rated comedies (thank you Farrelly Brothers, Judd Apatow and Todd Philips) paved the way for Bridesmaids, which offered a violent break from traditional onscreen female representations in Hollywood; I would love to have seen a studio executive’s reaction after watching dailies of Jean Harlow or Barbara Stanwyck defecating in a sink during a dress fitting. Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s witnessed a long period of “genre-busting” films that reassessed classical conventions and spoke to modern cultural conditions (Easy Rider, 1969, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971, come to mind). Like films of this sort, good comedy is both topical and reactionary; as is The Heat, and it has the balls to admit it.
When McCarthy utters to Bullock, “this isn’t Training Day,” I couldn’t help but smile. I’m curious if The Heat could even have been made in 2001. Sure, Bullock starred in Ms. Congeniality only one year earlier, but would audiences have responded to the vulgarity; the de-eroticization; or even, Melissa McCarthy as a primary player? Would audiences have understood the irony behind the only Caucasian lead being an albino?
I smiled because comedy today is better for it.