It’s tempting to review The Heat, the lady-centric buddy cop comedy from Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, by focusing on what the movie is not. It is not an action vehicle made by men, for men; the by-the-books stickler and loose cannon who must learn to work together are played by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, respectively, and its screenwriter is Parks and Recreation veteran Katie Dippold. It is not the most original plot that has ever been put to film; if you’ve seen a buddy cop movie in your lifetime, the basic beats are already extremely familiar. And, last but not least, it is not a total cinematic victory for feminism.
But let’s start with what The Heat is: A movie that focuses, for most of its running time, on two women talking. The formulaic nature of the buddy-cop genre actually works in the script’s favor. Not only does it free the movie from any obligation to foreground the characters’ dating lives – where the romantic subplot in Bridesmaids was fairly big, here, it’s practically vestigial – it means that we walk into the movie knowing the rough structure of its plot. Accordingly, The Heat can more or less breeze past the stuff about drug kingpins to focus on the long, talky bits – McCarthy attempting to tart Bullock up for a club, an emergency tracheotomy performed to settle an argument, or just two women getting drunk and making creative use of Scotch tape – where the leads get to know each other.
Most reviews of The Heat have focused on the idea that it’s McCarthy’s show, and in many ways, it is. But that has a lot to do with the chemistry between the two women, and Bullock is a huge part of why that chemistry is so strong. As an uptight FBI agent, she builds a full, interesting character in the spaces around McCarthy’s riffs, leaning into her natural stiffness and staginess – qualities I’ve found distracting in most of her other roles – and transforming it into an endearing, dorky vulnerability, swinging her limbs around at awkward angles like a clumsily manipulated Barbie doll and making every line sound as if she’s proofread it three times in her head for grammar. Against Bullock’s class-valedictorian-at-the-prom act, McCarthy’s loose, unpredictable line readings and frank vulgarity – she uses the word “fuck,” in this movie, with the same frequency and ease that most of us use “and” or “the” – feel even more explosive.
A word, here: Previous feminist critics have raised concerns over how McCarthy’s body is used as a punchline, particularly in Bridesmaids. While it’s true that male comedians have always had the freedom to be average-looking fellas, and to use their own bodies as punchlines – even conventionally handsome comic actors, like Jon Hamm and Joel McHale, tend to frame their own good looks as qualities worth mocking – the cruelty and body policing aimed at women means that the way our bodies are used in comedy carries an extra emphasis, one that can sting. In a review of a previous McCarthy vehicle, Identity Thief, critic Rex Reed casually referred to McCarthy as “tractor-sized” and “a female hippo.” McCarthy’s response was remarkably measured, considering that she strings together cuss words for a living – “I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate,” she told the New York Times – but she did admit that it was the sort of comment that “would have crushed” her at a younger age, and something that made her worry about the society in which she’s raising her daughters.
But McCarthy is a great physical comedian – the Bridesmaids bit in which she knocked Kristen Wiig down and began slapping her, presumably to demonstrate a philosophical point about triumphing over adversity, was one of the movie’s funniest and most perversely inspiring scenes – and it’s a responsible director’s job to let her use that physicality without adding any toxic cliches about women and weight. Which, for the record, I believe The Heat does; there are plenty of “undateable” jokes in the movie, but all of them land squarely on Bullock. (When Bullock confesses that she used to be married, McCarthy takes a pause, attempts to compose herself, then asks, “was he a hearing man?”) And the major factor in McCarthy’s physical comedy, here, is not her appearance. It’s the fact she’s scary; she pulls a man through a car window with her bare hands, she threatens to shoot suspects “in the dick,” and one of the movie’s best running gags involves McCarthy finding ever more trivial disagreements to settle by pulling out her gun.
The movie’s violence doesn’t always work. As, uh, ideologically questionable as buddy-cop movies tend to be – due process rarely obtains in this genre – I find it hard to imagine why Feig and Dippold wanted to include scenes like the one where the partners unsuccessfully attempt the “dangle the suspect off a ledge” interrogation tactic with a young black man. Just as in the infamous “rape joke” debate, inviting us to take the perpetrator’s side in a real, common act of violence (white law enforcement officers terrorizing and killing young black men) feels ugly in a way that the over-the-top, goofy violence (resolving a family debate about luggage with a firearm) never does.
That said, I keep returning to the central conceit, the thing that – outside of explosions and shoot-outs – holds “The Heat” together. The fact that so much of this movie is just two women talking, getting to know each other, bumping up against and coming to accept their differences, without a man remotely involved. One viewer has confessed to tearing up at the end of The Heat. But as for me, my moment of soaring feminist solidarity came in a scene where Bullock sees a group of male colleagues making sexist jokes at McCarthy’s expense, and can’t keep herself from speaking up. There’s a moving speech, of course. But the real triumph comes when Bullock just gives up on speeches, flips a magnificent double bird, and walks out. As with women themselves, it turns out that fuck-yous are far more effective when there’s more than one.