Silver Screen: The Heat **1/2
In its best moments, The Lone Ranger plays like a buddy-cop comedy set in the Old West. Paul Feig’s new comedy The Heat is also a buddy-cop comedy with a twist, but here the big twist is-- gasp!-- they’re ladies.
That’s a thin premise to hang a whole movie on, and Katie Dippold’s script never ventures far from the established formula. The performers here are good enough to redeem the material through sheer force of will, but that might not be the most constructive use of their time, or ours.
Sandra Bullock knows something about programmatic comedies. The success of Miss Congeniality ushered in not only a sequel but a stream of middle-of-the-road yuk-fests including The Proposal, Two Weeks Notice, and All About Steve. She has no distinctive comedic presence, no facility for either rapid-fire banter or physical comedy, but she mugs and pratfalls with total conviction regardless of how kinda watchable (The Proposal) or godawful (All About Steve) the movie turns out to be.
She’s reliably reliable once more as Agent Ashburn, a generically uptight FBI agent whose smug proficiency has failed to win her any friends in the Bureau. To prove her ability as a manager and snag a coveted promotion, she volunteers to go to Boston to track down a drug trafficker who’s expecting “a big shipment” soon, because drug traffickers in bad comedies are always just a few days away from a big shipment.
The case is complicated by the involvement of the impulsive, hot-tempered Detective Mullins (SIU alumna Melissa McCarthy). This is going to sound crazy, but even though Ashburn is a fun-hating prude and Mullins is an id-driven wild woman, they might just be the partners each of them needs. (I know, I know-- it’s crazy, right?)
Bullock is funny for a pretty girl, like the cheerleader who’s a good sport in the pep-rally sketches. McCarthy, on the other hand, is a comedic powerhouse. She doesn’t rise to the level of whatever material is presented to her, she takes it and dominates it. It’s hard not to wish, as you watch her scream and curse and punch her way around Boston, that the whole movie was about her and her loutish Masshole family (including mother Jane Curtin and brothers Michael Rapaport and Bill Burr).
Like most not-so-great cop comedies, The Heat is weirdly dedicated to following its generic procedural plot, as though the audience came to see a satisfying mystery rather than looking for jokes. In the moments when it dials back on the dopey drug-runner faux-action plot, though, it does give McCarthy and Bullock time to develop some chemistry. The funniest scenes are the smaller, quieter interactions, which also happen to be where director Feig shines. The director of Bridesmaids and creator of Freaks and Geeks excels at balancing jokes and genuine emotion on a more intimate scale, and it’s no surprise that the quieter, talkier scenes are where the movie generates the biggest laughs. McCarthy is game either way, coaxing nuance out of a seemingly simple line or screaming curses as she births herself out a too-narrow car window, but Bullock has a hard time bringing personality to bigger setpieces.
A great group of supporting players helps make this forgettable enterprise suitably entertaining, including the aforementioned Curtin and Burr as well as Tom Wilson, Dan Bakkedahl, and Youtube star Spoken Reasons. Still, this is McCarthy’s show. Cops in these movies always gripe that they work better alone and don’t need a partner. In McCarthy’s case, it’s probably true.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.