You don’t go to mainstream action comedies like THE HEAT for the character arcs. You go for the performances, gags, clever plot twists, and the zingers. THE HEAT runs in the long tradition of police action comedies like RUNNING SCARED and the LETHAL WEAPON series in which two mismatched law enforcement officers bicker like an old married couple as they chase down some nefarious crook or other. Usually, these films end in big explosions and dry quips. One of the cops gets a date, the other gets his marriage sorted out. We laugh and go home happy, especially if at least one of the stars does what they’re known for. Here, that star is Melissa McCarthy. Does it matter if her character, Detective Shannon Mullins, wouldn’t pass the entrance exam? (At least not in the UK, she wouldn’t.) Heck, no. She has the right to rough up suspects and talk dirty because the perpetrators deserve it.
THE HEAT pairs her with latest Best Actress Oscar winner to find her career in a quandary, Sandra Bullock. She campaigned so long and hard for her award for THE BLIND SIDE as a mom who adopts an African American football player that she didn’t think what to do afterwards. Since then, she has contributed a supporting role to the extremely worthy but ‘niche’ (i.e. under-seen) EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE and two very different films out this year, GRAVITY (which opens the Venice Film Festival at the end of August) and this one. The problem with winning an Oscar is that you become re-branded: now you have to do worthy, uplifting stuff at least every other movie. Those films are not Hollywood’s mainstay. The trick is to do a Meryl Streep and find those transformative roles every five years or so, even in comedy (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and THE IRON LADY, which was a funny to us Brits). Oh, and do an accent.
Bullock is cast as FBI agent Sarah Ashburn. She’s a closer, which is to say if she orders a drug bust, she knows she’s going to find something. Her colleagues hate her – prissy little know-it-all! She doesn’t have a boyfriend. In the film’s best gag (thank you, screenwriter Katie Dippold) she cannot even keep a cat; she holds on to a neighbour’s, then has to let it go because that would be wrong. Her job is everything to her. What she needs is to lighten up. What she wants is promotion. A case comes up in Boston involving a notorious drug dealer, Simon Larkin. (Since when are drug dealers named after famous poets? What next, a notorious dope fiend with the surname Day-Lewis? A bee-murderer named Plath?) Ashburn goes for it and becomes a fish-out-of-water. For some reason, the Boston portrayed here is more like Baltimore, albeit with the obligatory Irish community.
It is very important when watching comedies like THE HEAT to check reality at the door. So when Mullins pulls a suspect out of his car window don’t think, ‘that’s not possible, she’d have to be Gina Carano to do that!’ When Mullins throws stuff at suspects or attempts to mow down a low-end street dealer with her car or even bawls out her boss don’t think, surely any of these acts would end with suspension or even death threats. No, Mullins is a fantasy cop: she can do what she likes!
Dippold’s script does not use the cop movie structure to straighten Mullins out or find Ashburn a husband. Their meaningful relationship begins and ends with each other. Mullins has some mending with her family to do after putting her brother (Michael Rapaport) in jail to save him from his drug habit. (Really? Prison is anti-rehab.) Ashburn has to learn that she’s not as smart as she thinks she is (that guy she put in jail as a notorious killer, well, he might be innocent).
The performances are perfectly fine, though watching Bullock in this is like seeing a respected colleague do ‘dress down Friday’. They can wear the sweatpants and the college t-shirt like they are about to paint the garage but you know they don’t want to. McCarthy is rapidly minting her own abrasive, ‘like me because I say what I’m thinking’ Roseanna Barr-style. The joke here is that Mullins does have admirers but she keeps men at arm’s length. Why? There is probably a line in the original draft about them being ‘lying scumbags’ but it has been removed lest it suggest one extra character arc that the writer cannot follow. (Save it for the sequel.)
I wish I could say that the gags, plot twists and zingers were up to much, but in many cases they are excruciating to watch. Mullins ripping strips off Ashburn’s clothes is a WTF moment – the Devil Tears Prada! (OK, I know Prada does handbags, but you get the idea.) When Ashburn uses her sexuality to charm a crook, barging her way through a crowd of younger, trendier women, it is even worse! There is a running joke about an Albino – the actor has ‘whitened up’ – that is too awful for words. There is an embarrassing dance scene in a bar and the obligatory offer of a day-old, half-eaten sandwich to Ashburn. (Mullins would leave a sandwich half-eaten; what stopped her?) I was primed to laugh but it just didn’t happen. As for the plot twists, well, think of the most improbable one and you’re there.
Yet the women in the audience had a good time. It clearly flicked a switch. So who am I to criticise a film that makes an under-entertained section of the audience guffaw? I just expected more from director Paul Feig. BRIDESMAIDS was funny, THE HEAT made me want to get out of the kitchen.