The odd couple at the center of The Heat isn’t just uptight Sandra Bullock and uncouth Melissa McCarthy; it’s also two different styles of comedy. Bullock has played a cop several times before, and she’s played a straight-laced workaholic before, too. But she’s never quite done the improv-style, go-for-broke brand of comedy perfected by the Apatow Brigade and shows like The Office. McCarthy has come into her own in recent years thanks to precisely this style of anything-goes humor. We know our mismatched heroines will eventually find a way to work together and become besties. But will the two mismatched comic genres?
Maybe. The Heat is kind of a mess, but it’s a funny mess. Bullock plays Ashburn, a highly competent, by-the-books FBI agent with no life. (Her only company is a cat — her neighbor’s.) McCarthy is Mullins, the vulgar loose cannon Boston detective whom Ashburn has to work with in order to apprehend a brutal drug kingpin. It’s no Beverly Hills Cop, but The Heat does spend a decent amount of time with its cops ‘n robbers plot — bizarre, because it’s such a nothing story. So, the film sometimes feels lax, disjointed, like it’s just wasting time until the next comic set piece rolls around. The good news is that said set piece usually does roll around. And when it’s on, The Heat is on. (God, did I just say that?)
Actually, the banter between Ashburn and Mullins, the ostensible highlight and selling point of the movie (watch Sandy the tightwad square off against Melissa the boor!) is less uproarious than just charmingly awkward, with the two repeatedly misunderstanding and stumbling over each other’s sentences. It’s chuckleworthy stuff, but that’s as far as it goes. The big laughs come, though, whenever our heroines have to interact with anyone else, as the oft-bewildered supporting cast ping-pongs between Ashburn’s neurotic daftness and Mullins’s hair-trigger lunacy. Burning especially bright are the scenes with the latter’s family, a collection of Southie-accented Massholes who look like they came straight from the blooper reel for The Fighter, and who launch into foul-mouthed tirades upon seeing their wayward offspring. (Mullins put one of them in jail, see.)
Director Paul Feig (who also made Bridesmaids) isn’t much for pacing, but he’s a good gag man, and he knows his way around actors: Bullock is so good as the hapless nerd who tries to do everything right that it’s a wonder anyone ever tried to pass her off as America’s Sweetheart. And McCarthy, as always, is hard to resist. More than any other comic actor working today, she has the ability to make every word coming out of her lips feel like it’s being thought up on the spot rather than recited from memory. Every actor is supposed to do this, of course, but she does it better than most.
At its best, The Heat is profane, ludicrous, and violent, but it never feels gratuitous, for some reason. There’s even a fairly substantial body count — which ordinarily might work against a movie like this, as The Hangover Part III found out recently. But here, because the actual jokes around it are funny, the violence has the intended effect — to jar us and raise our pulses, because we laugh harder when we’re excited. To be fair, not all of it works as well as it should: An emergency tracheotomy scene (don’t ask) feels like a random attempt to mimic the cringing body horror of Bridesmaids, and the repeated gags about Dan Bakkedahl’s albino rival cop (“You look evil as shit!” Mullins exclaims upon seeing him) lose their kick after a while. But the cast is good, the jokes are mostly funny, and whenever it starts to wear out its welcome, The Heat pulls out another decent gag to keep things moving. I look forward to half-watching it again on cable one day.