There really isn't an ounce of originality to be found in the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy buddy flick The Heat, an obvious and mostly successful attempt to add an odd female coupling to the long history of male-dominated action/comedy buddy flicks.
Much has been played out about Melissa McCarthy's signing on to the project primarily to work with Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, but it's pretty clear from the earliest moments of the film that this is McCarthy's film and Bullock's primary task is simply to not get overwhelmed by McCarthy's over-the-top riffing and rambunctious stage persona.
For the most part, it all succeeds.
Bullock plays Ashburn, a federal agent with a top notch record but also a reputation for alienating fellow agents with an air of superiority that, if we were to look at the film from a feminist perspective, would probably be respected from a male agent. She's up for a promotion, but her chief (Demian Bichir) isn't exactly sold on her as an upwardly mobile FBI agent. She's got a chance when she's flown to Boston to bring down a major drug lord (Are there minor drug lords?). Unfortunately, to do so Ashburn will have to work with the far less "by the book" stylings of Detective Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a detective who likely only has a job because her unorthodox approach to everyone and everything gets results.
It should be no surprise that the two are wildly mismatched and that a good portion of The Heat is spent making us laugh about these differences while having Bullock play straight to McCarthy's vulgar and stupidly funny rants.
Paul Feig, who directed McCarthy in Bridesmaids, was wise to bring her back as she's absolutely a gem at taking a seemingly one-note character and adding subtle layers upon layers that are simultaneously sympathetic and freaking hilarious. If you consider yourself a fan of McCarthy's work, there's no way you should miss The Heat because it features the funny yet likable McCarthy being funny and raunchy and improvisational and likable and as crude as she was in her breakout role in Bridesmaids.
Feig doesn't manage his material quite as well this time around, though that's as much because first-time screenwriter Katie Dippold's material is a tad undercooked and thin. Dippold, a co-producer and writer for Parks & Recreation, certainly gives McCarthy tons of quality material but pretty much everyone else in the cast is either under-utilized or just plain bland.
There's quite a bit of fun to be had in the pairing of Bullock and McCarthy, a fact that may explain why a sequel to The Heat is rumored to already be in the works. Maybe because we've seen Bullock play this type of character one too many times, what she's able to accomplish in this film isn't quite as satisfying as it mostly comes off as a modestly entertaining riff on past efforts. We've got straight-laced Sandy, slightly sensual Sandy, time to explode and get drunk Sandy and ultimately likable Sandy. When both Bullock and McCarthy are really allowed to play off each other, the film soars. When they're forced to stick to the formula, the only thing that really makes it work is the full comedy force of McCarthy's blazing screen presence.
While it's nice to see a quality actor like Demian Bichir continue to get work after his Oscar nominated break-out role in A Better Life, one only wishes he had more to do here. While 2011's A Better Life edged him closer to being a household name in the U.S., Bichir has been a cinematic presence since 1977 and has shown up in quality efforts far more than you likely realize. Marlon Wayans is funny and likable here, though it feels like quite a bit of his work either got left on the cutting room floor or Dippold simply forgot to do anything with his character. The same is largely true for a criminally under-utilized Jane Curtin, who shows glimpses of the creepy curmudgeon that we love her to be.
An ongoing bit that starts off funny but fades fast involves Dan Bakkedahl, recently of the television series Veep, as an albino DEA agent who suffers the wrath repeatedly of McCarthy's relentless spewings. A back story about McCarthy's family adds a bit of substance to McCarthy's Mullins, but is mostly throwaway beyond that purpose.
The Heat, while far from a flawless film, should serve its purpose as a frequently funny and entertaining pairing of two of Hollywood's most likable and popular actresses in Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. At 116 minutes, The Heat is a good 20-30 minutes too long and has several pockets where it doesn't do nearly enough with its time. Feig still hasn't quite mastered the art of big screen action, while the police work itself seems like a bit player in place only to allow McCarthy to go over-the-top. While this mostly works, a tad more realism would have made it all even funnier.
For most of America, being "entertained" is more than enough and while The Heat may not set the box-office ablaze it should be packing more than enough heat to justify that rumored sequel. With a better script and equal time for all its characters, The Heat 2 could even become that rare sequel that outshines its predecessor.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic