THE HEAT– 2 STARS
The “buddy cop” scenario is a well-worn screenwriting safety net for both the action and comedy genres of movies. It’s easy and it works. Put two cool guys together (i.e. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence) or pair up a couple of opposites (i.e. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) in the name of blowing stuff up or showing off for laughs and you’ve got enough material for a movie that people will want to see. The only hitch is that you have to team the right two “buddies” together. The police case storyline that has to be solved is secondary. Even a worthy adversary of a villain, while a nice bonus when done right, is also secondary to the two heroes. If the two stars don’t have chemistry, you’ve got nothing to win with. A good “buddy cop” movie starts and ends there.
The buddy cop movie, The Heat, gets that part right. The flip-the-script curveball of The Heat is that, this time, our buddy cops are women instead men. Paul Feig, the director of the 2011 runaway romp smash Bridesmaids, re-teams with Melissa McCarthy and brings in (always surprised to say this) Academy Award winner Sandra Bullock. In a genre dominated by great male pairings (Gibson/Glover, Smith/Lawrence, Pegg/Frost, Murphy/Nolte, Wahlberg/Ferrell, and Willis/anyone), it’s extremely pleasant to see a twin-bill of ladies step up to the plate and Feig signed up a pretty good duo. Their chemistry is tangible and works just fine. As outlined earlier, that single element is enough to entertain, but the rest of The Heat stumbles to keep up. It’s not quite one of those “all the funny parts are in the trailer” kind of movies, but darn close.
The Heat goes the “couple of opposites” route for the buddy cop scenario. Bullock plays Special Agent Sarah Ashburn of the FBI stationed in New York City. She’s a by-the-book and gloating professional in a pantsuit that backs up her intuition, intelligence, and hunches that constantly show up her peers. She’s the kind of person that never fails and never loses. Sarah has risen the male-dominated ladder quickly, but, naturally, she doesn’t make time for herself or a man. Yes, there’s a cat involved. Shocking, right?
When a spike in activity arises with a new and as-yet-unseen Boston drug lord named “Larkin” in the picture, Sarah’s boss Hale (A Better Life Academy Award nominee Demian Bichir) sends her to Beantown to crack the case with a big promotion on the line. Arriving on new turf, Sarah crosses paths with Det. Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a bossy, uncouth, and highly successful nut-job of a street cop. It seems that the lowlife perps from Mullins’ cases connect to Ashburn’s mystery top man. With jurisdiction being arm-wrestled over between the loudmouth and the straight arrow, Hale and Mullins’ superior, Capt. Woods (a long-lost Tom Wilson, that you know as Biff from the Back to the Future trilogy), settle to team the two together. Needless to say, the root of all humor surrounds their clash of differences with an arbitrary case in between.
Feig and his first-time feature screenwriter, Katie Dippold of TV’s Parks of Recreation, amassed a huge amount of underused parts while centering the spotlight nearly completely on Bullock and McCarthy. It’s understandable that people are coming to see the main event duo and no much else. That and it’s easy sometimes for a thin cop story to be overloaded with too many places of attention. However, that rich second layer is what separates good movies from bad ones. There’s enough nearby talent to make The Heat a stronger ensemble show but it’s reduced to background noise. It’s a shame too, because, as we saw in Bridesmaids, McCarthy works better within a group than as the center of attention.
Us children of the 80’s know Tom Wilson can do all kinds of range, but he only gets one decent scene. The same goes for Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Kaitlin Olson. They too get single, fleeting moments when their talent deserves more.
Furthermore, Demian Bichir is a heck of an actor to be cashing a wasted paycheck barking orders. Marlon Wayans, who’s popular enough, but shows up nowhere on the marketing, has far too much charm to be just the “desk” guy. Newcomer Spoken Reasons, a YouTube-bred performer, is fun, as is Veep‘s Dan Bakkendahl, but they can’t steal whole scenes. Talented Saturday Night Live members both new and old, the fresh Taran Killam and the wily veteran Jane Curtin, don’t have much to do either. Some of the funniest background noise is the zany Mullins family comprised of the usual Boston stereotypes made up by Curtin, Michael Rapaport, former Daily Show correspondent Nate Corddry (Rob’s little brother), stand-up comedian Bill Burr, and a head-turning “was-that-who-I-thought-it was” Massachusetts native Joey McIntyre of New Kids on the Block.
All of those folks could have been utilized more to spread the comedic wealth, but the engine to showcase Bullock and McCarthy drowns them out. That’s the trouble with The Heat. The Odd Couple routine and shtick is as deep as the humor roots go. That star power pair should be enough, but it’s not. The R-rated content is the right canvas, but nothing reaches a Bridesmaids-level aisle-roller.
Unfortunately, The Heat is all an endless assembly line of jokes where the loud ugly fat girl with confidence makes the restrained, skinny good-looking girl uncomfortable until one or the other cracks. Some of it works, uproariously so, but some is really forced, predictable, and pathetic. McCarthy’s wild improvisation style and knack for physical comedy is always fun to watch and worth the price of admission, but not much is done elsewhere to match her efforts. Bullock, before the inevitable “loosened up” character growth visible from miles away appears, is almost too tight in bouncing with McCarthy. We know she can play the square, but we also know she can do better than that too. When it works, it’s fun, but The Heat could have been better.
LESSON #1: OVERFLEXING ONE’S AUTHORITY— Both of our buddy cop opposites have trouble with this lesson’s character flaw. They both think they are better than everyone else at what they do. Ashburn rubs her accomplishments in to belittle her peers and completely uses her shiny federal badge to look down at anyone lesser in the same profession, especially Mullins. At the same time, Mullins grossly abuses authority by breaking all the rules and badgers her perps and superiors every step of the way to exact her brand of justice.
LESSON #2: THE CLASH OF STYLES WHEN AWKWARD MEETS DIRECT— With our Cagney and Lacy wannabe pairing, we have a clash of styles at work. The calculated nerd of Ashburn runs into the crass volcano of Mullins. One is awkward and non-offensive in everything they do while the other is direct and straight-on like a punch to the face. Both styles work for different scenarios, but both styles can be out of their element for other situations.
LESSON #3: WORKING WITH A PARTNER AND MAKING A FRIEND GO HAND-IN-HAND— This final lesson is too easy, but that’s what you get in a buddy cop movie. They are all the same, and this one is no different even with the fairer sex in the center. The two cool characters or the two opposites have to find a way to work together and/or put their differences to the side for the common goal. You have to respect the other person, learn to trust them, and know that they have your back. As usual, you might just make a new friend away from the job from the new partner you’ve gained on the job.