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Solid and funny ‘The Heat’ has a good balance between Bullock and McCarthy

Solid and funny ‘The Heat’ has a good balance between Bullock and McCarthy


The Heat

Directed by Paul Feig

Written by Katie Dippold

USA, 2013

Melissa McCarthy is at a precipice in her career, at a point where audiences can embrace or reject her for her fierce, intimidating comic presence. Earlier this year, as one of the stars of Identity Thief, a grotesque and toxic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles rip-off, she came off as unpleasant because her character was so cruel and obnoxious that an eventual predictable emotional redemption felt false and unearned. The joy of her Oscar-nominated performance in Bridesmaids was not meanness, but an unexpected, gruff charm, compounded by the fact that she was, in every way, playing a supporting character, not the lead. So her new film The Heat, which she headlines with Sandra Bullock, is a major test. Is she funny and off-kilter as a lead, or best utilized in small doses?

The answer is the former, mostly. Although its first act is fairly spotty, The Heat is otherwise funny and heartfelt, and just barely avoids wearing out its welcome. As a follow-up to Bridesmaids, for both McCarthy and director Paul Feig, it’s a slight step up. (Both comedies boast at least one gross-out scene whose purpose is mostly nil, and could be cut without the film being worse off.) Bullock is hard-nosed, by-the-book FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn, sent to Boston to sniff out a feared, mysterious drug lord. Ashburn is unwillingly forced to work with Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a local cop whose tactics border on the insane, even though—of course—she gets the job done better than any of her peers. Together, Ashburn and Mullins become fast friends as they face down against drug dealers, fatuous male co-workers, and Shannon’s loudmouth family.


For the first 20 minutes or so, The Heat flounders around as we wait for the setup that pushes Ashburn and Mullins together to finish. Ashburn is cartoonishly tweedy and rule-obsessed, so uptight that she doesn’t even curse; Mullins is such a hardass she’s frightened her bellicose-looking police chief into submission. When The Heat works best, it works outside of these fairly rote characterizations. Of course, it’s likely deliberate that most of this movie feels like a callback to early-1980s action comedies like 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop. But Feig’s strength is less in staging action sequences; for a movie whose roots are in those decades-old buddy comedies, there’s only a few bits of gunplay and fighting. Instead, he lets a number of scenes play out for a while to achieve a kind of comedic high. And unlike Bridesmaids, which landed on the wrong side of the 2-hour mark, many of the patient sequences that run longer than may be expected end up funnier because of it, not extra-awkward and grindingly unfunny.

Bullock and McCarthy come from different comic backgrounds, but mesh together quite nicely, balancing each other’s quirks out. Mullins, in the first act, is honestly too much of a reminder of the character McCarthy played in Identity Thief; the movie’s grip on reality is tenuous at best as we watch her shout and bray at everything in her path, simply because it is there. This, even though no one dares call her out on her clearly outrageous, legitimately dangerous, and unprofessional behavior. Arguably, Mullins doesn’t become softer and kinder when she’s forced to work with Ashburn, but refocusing her ire on a professionally arrogant but personally meek colleague ends up making both characters more relatable. Bullock isn’t stretching too far as Ashburn, nor is McCarthy, but they have an unforced banter from their first scene. Even when the scenes they share aren’t all explosively funny—a montage at a dive bar is kind of a groaner—the leads’ chemistry is enough to make it all tolerable, at least.


The Heat, thankfully, is much more than tolerable, a laid-back, funny, confident story with enough unexpected turns and characters. (Mullins’ constant face-offs with a strange DEA agent played by Dan Bakkedahl are a high point.) Melissa McCarthy may still not be able to dominate every comedy she headlines, in case she ends up causing audience-wide overdoses on her style of humor. After Identity Thief, it seemed possible that she’d already burned out as a comedic firecracker left over from a couple of years ago. Now, it’s more likely that what she needs is the right script, cast, and director to avoid seeming mean-spirited and nasty. Or, frankly, she may be best off working with Paul Feig in the future. McCarthy is a whirling dervish, a force of nature; that can be funny for a while, but eventually, the luster wears off. What she needs is a counterbalance, and in Sandra Bullock, she’s found it, at least for one movie. The Heat isn’t overwhelmed with too much of McCarthy’s humor, doling out just the right amount, backing away before she becomes unbearable. The Heat is a solid comedy, assured and shrewd, if only because it knows when to stop Melissa McCarthy from whirling out of control.

— Josh Spiegel