According to the MPAA’s theatrical market statistics for 2012, slightly more women went to see movies than men. However, most movies feature men in the lead roles or with an actress as a co-lead. Hit films are usually male dominated and then if there’s movie in the same vein but featuring women, it’s “the female [insert hit movie here]”. The Heat could be described as a female buddy-cop movie (you don’t need a specific movie title because there have been so many), which is not only pithy and unfair, but only serves to highlight how long it’s taken to get talented actresses to lead a genre that’s been around for decades. With tremendous chemistry between stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as well as painfully funny dialogue, The Heat isn’t a hilarious buddy-cop flick with women. It’s a hilarious buddy-cop flick, period. It’s also the funniest film I’ve seen all year.
FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is angling for a promotion, and so she reluctantly accepts an assignment in Boston to bring down a drug lord. Working the same case is Boston Police Department Detective Shannon Mullins (McCarthy). Due to their abrasive personalities, both women frequently find themselves at odds with their co-workers. Ashburn is arrogant and Mullins is constantly threatening to maim or murder anyone who gets in her way. But more importantly, both women are damn good at their jobs. However, their egos cause serious friction when they’re forced to team-up.
It’s the buddy-cop formula almost down to a tee. They’re are mismatched personalities, they’re both good at their jobs even though they accomplish their goals in very different ways, and they’re at odds with their superiors although Ashburn is a bit more mannered in her disagreements while Mullins asks if anyone in the office has seen the captain’s (Thomas Wilson) “tiny girl balls if little girls had balls”. Eventually (and this is a spoiler if you’ve never seen a buddy-cop film before) they overcome their differences and develop a mutual respect and admiration that leads them to become a successful, crime-fighting duo.
But The Heat has one important exception to the formula: they’re outcasts partly because they’re women. People would be annoyed by their behavior even if they were men, but director Paul Feig cleverly surrounds the lead characters with male co-workers. When Ashburn storms a criminal’s house with an FBI team, they ignore her orders and dismiss her assumption only to be shown up by her finding the evidence. She does it a way that annoys her fellow agents (although it’s amusing to us), but she’s the smartest person in the room. Mullins may insult almost every single cop, but she’s unfailing persistent when it comes to running down perps. Nevertheless, they still don’t get the positive recognition or even begrudging respect they deserve. “I know we’re not supposed to say it, but being a woman in this field is tough,” Ashburn tells Mullins as they start to bond over drinks.
This bonding is particularly rewarding because even though we know it’s going to happen, Katie Dippold‘s fantastic script does a wonderful job painting Ashburn and Mullins’ needing each other and not in a vague “girl power” kind of way. They bond because they’ve rubbed everyone else the wrong way (again, their behavior would be understandably grating if it came from men), they’re lonely as a result, and the script finds way to make that loneliness both dramatic and funny. Ashburn isn’t just alone; she’s a cat lady who doesn’t even have her own cat; she has to occasionally steal it from her neighbor (please stay during the credits to see how this situation gets resolved).
Just thinking back on some of these jokes makes me crack up. I was laughing throughout The Heat and I was laughing hard. On paper, Ashburn and Mullins are easy foils, but it takes chemistry to bring the characters to life, and Bullock and McCarthy have that chemistry in spades. Each actress brings her own comic sensibilities to the role. Yes, we’ve seen Bullock play an uptight, type-A personality, and McCarthy do acerbic and unfiltered, but both approaches feel fresh when paired together. The actresses aren’t trying to one-up each other, and instead Bullock knows when to play off McCarthy’s one-liners and when to let her co-star just go wild. McCarthy gets a little stuck at times reciting a variation of “fucking” plus violent intent, but she also has some of my favorite lines of the year.
The Heat is a comedy first and foremost, but what makes it even more worthwhile is how it acknowledges gender without sermonizing. The movie isn’t a heavy-handed commentary about the state of female-led mainstream movies (the fact that it’s the only female-led film this summer already says that), or criticizing the buddy-cop genre. It’s enjoying the genre and being amongst the best it has to offer. The action may not blow you away, but the film’s personality, comedy, and heart more than make up for it. Hollywood does need more female-led films, and it also needs more great films. Bring The Heat 2.