Friday, June 28, 2013

THE HEAT is On


If nothing else, the new buddy cop comedy The Heat proves that some standard movie formulas can still work if done well. Just reading the phrase “buddy cop comedy” probably already has you thinking it’ll have the tough boss who puts together two dissimilar police officers. The pair will, after initial tension and hurt feelings, learn how to work together and then even to like each other, maybe. There’ll be bonding and bullets and it’ll all get wrapped up with plenty of laughs along the way. Well, you’d be right. But The Heat does it all with plenty of likable energy, reasonably involving plotting, and two terrifically appealing lead performances. And the formula works once again.

To this typically masculine subgenre, director Paul Feig, of Bridesmaids, and screenwriter Katie Dippold, a writer for the terrific sitcom Parks & Recreation, bring a welcome pair of roles for women. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy play the cops around which the story is built. They’re not only operating within the usual bounds of the good cop, bad cop positions, but are playing variations on their typical character types as well. Bullock plays one of her professional women who gradually loosen up and let others into her life without sacrificing the quality of her work. McCarthy plays one of her tornados of profanity and peculiarities, the goofball with hidden depths. These two hugely appealing actresses are good at playing these kinds of roles and here have fun chemistry with one another. They’re a natural pair. Their differences and similarities fit together nicely, operating on compatible wavelengths from which genuine warmth is formed. Bullock, tightly composed and snappily determined and McCarthy, confidently messy, make quite a pair.

Bullock’s character is an F.B.I. agent who arrives in Boston hot on the trail of a mysterious drug lord. McCarthy is the initially off-putting local detective who bristles at the thought of some outsider telling her how to do things in her town. Everything you need to know about the characters you can tell by their wardrobes. Bullock dresses exclusively in conservative pantsuits, while McCarthy wears ratty t-shirts and a well-worn vest. They couldn’t be more different, which makes their progression from initial antagonism to reluctant partners satisfying. Though there’s plenty of room around them for character actors to play cops (Demián Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Taran Killam), criminals (Spoken Reasons, Michael McDonald), and locals (Jane Curtin, Michael Rapaport, Bill Burr), it’s basically a two-woman show. Asides acknowledge the difficulty of being a woman in a typically male-driven profession, but that’s wisely kept subtextual. They’ve got a job to do, proving their capability with results.

What makes The Heat work so well is the way it looks like a cop movie, crisply barreling down an investigation that takes some satisfying twists and turns, but moves like a star-driven comedy. In scenes of interrogations, analysis of clues, and meetings over strategy, Feig’s direction and Dippold’s screenplay serve both cop and comedy sides of the film equally, ratcheting up the stakes and dumping exposition while letting their leads’ clearly-drawn personalities bounce off of each other in appealingly prickly confrontations. They throw their whole bodies into showing the other who’s the real boss of the situation, to the point of spending way too long trying to push each other out of a doorway for the small victory of being the first one to a suspect’s apartment. To compete with each other when they’re both equally driven to catch the drug lord is ridiculous and they know it, but they simply can’t help themselves. That’s what drives the comedy: irrepressible professional pride leading to surface level conflict that inevitably reveals the affection we knew all along they could find.

It all comes down to the inevitable stakeouts and shootouts the genre requires, but because it’s been such a pleasure to see these two cops snap at one another and grow close to one another while being, for the most part, good at their jobs, it’s easy to get involved in their plight. There are big splashy gross-out moments of stabbings and tense gun-wielding stalemates, but plenty of laughs as well. When Bullock and McCarthy flail about undercover in a nightclub, it’s more funny than tense, but later a scene that starts with an amusing buzzed night out and ends with the two barely escaping certain death is suddenly more dangerous than funny. (Though McCarthy gets a good laugh out of the moment as well.) The film keeps both plates spinning. It may be more or less exactly what you’d expect out of a buddy cop comedy, but we haven’t had a good one in some time. It is formula played in such a way that it doesn’t feel stale. And it’s not often that a Hollywood production is so nonchalant about telling the story of two women in the context of a formula picture, which makes it all the more refreshing.


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