Paul Feig, director of The Heat, 2011’s Bridesmaids, and cult TV show Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) is a man propelled by a laudable mission – to increase the representation of strong, funny women in Hollywood films.
But it’s not just some warm and fuzzy notion of joining the pop culture suffragettes at the barricades.
He wants to present well told, engaging stories that just happen to have female leads, which are conspicuously absent in much of the fare Hollywood pumps out as he told Michael Smith of dailypress.com:
“You just have to have someone telling amazing stories that are new and give great roles to women in ways [audiences] haven’t seen before. It really comes down to the responsibility of the director and of the storyteller.”
Unfortunately The Heat is not that film.
A cobbled together collection of cliches, and well-worn tropes, all held together by a emotionally discordant sensibility that isn’t sure if it wants to be a touching buddy movie or a crass and ballsy gross out flick, its only two real strengths are Sandra Bullock as Special FBI Agent Sarah Ashburn and Melissa McCarthy as Detective Shannon Mullins who are pure comedy gold.
With little thanks to the uneven script by Parks and Recreation scribe Katie Dipold, which frankly doesn’t know if it’s coming or going, they bring their respective characters to vivid comic life, Bullock displaying her undeniable flair for visual pratfalls and McCarthy purveying her line in crass, over the top out there characters to perfection.
While neither character is particularly likeable on their own – Bullock’s Ashburn is an emotionally repressed ex-foster child whose need to prove herself to everyone manifests as an arrogant competitiveness, and McCarthy’s Mullins is the bullying lone girl in an all boy lower middle class family with, shall we say, issues – together they bring out the best in each other.
Forced to work together in their quest to bring a major drug lord, Larkin (Taran Killam) by their respective bosses, and bringing markedly different working styles to the table – Ashburn as you might expect is a by-the-book bore in dressed down pants suits while McCarthy is a highly unorthodox street smart detective who hasn’t met a regulation she doesn’t want to rip into small, messy pieces (Murtagh and Riggs anyone?) – they are the ultimate odd couple.
At least at first glance.
As the film grinds inexorably on over two excessively long hours, joining the narrative dots with all the subtlety of thick red crayon on one of the confidential files Ashburn holds to her chest as if they’re the key to life itself, it becomes clear that Feig is trying to paint them as feminist warriors trying to make it in a man’s world, and paying a high price for doing so.
Ashburn says as much on the night they bond in a dive of a bar over shots, jukebox music and oddly intimate dancing with the mostly aged male denizens but it simply doesn’t ring true.
These characters aren’t driven, at least not in the way Dipold has written them, by a crushing need to over-impress in a testosterone thick world, although undoubtedly that dynamic is at play in the far background.
What drives them instead is a desperate need to make up for their own emotional and life skills inadequacies, in ways that they have nothing to do with gender politics and everything to do with gaping character deficiencies.
The only thing that saves either of these emotionally-damaged characters and gives any them any likability at all is Bullock and McCarthy’s ability, as a team not alone, to invest them with humanity, pathos, and a damn good line in riotously funny banter.
McCarthy particularly takes lines that shouldn’t be as funny as they are, and delivers with the sort of deadpan delivery that had me at least thinking “damn that’s funny”.
Alas I simply didn’t laugh out loud as much as I expected or wanted to – I am a great fan of both women’s work and have been for some time – despite both women’s superlative comic skills coming to the fore all the way through.
In the end, talented and clever though they are, Bullock and McCarthy alone can’t save a movie that is utterly enthrall to Lethal Weapon-lite formulaic tropes, cardboard cutout characters and a overlong plot so lazy and unimaginative it barely bothers to move even when it really, desperately needs to.
Points to Feig for his laudable goal of bring funny talented women to the forefront, aided by Bullock and McCarthy valiant attempts to bring it to fruition, but The Heat is ultimately a lacklustre pale imitation of so many fine buddy films that have gone before it.
The feminist revolution Feig envisages may have to wait a little while longer.