Director: Paul Feig
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Spoken Reasons, Michael McDonald, Dan Bakkedahl, Taran Killam, Tom Wilson, Jane Curtin
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 6/28/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 28, 2013
There's one insult in The Heat that had me sporadically chuckling for a few minutes after it's made to one of the law enforcement officers that make up yet another completely-different-from-each-other-and-therefore-perfectly-suited-for-each-other duo (You'll know the gibe when you hear it: It involves a reference to a famous advertising mascot). It's equal parts mean and clever, but it's probably even funnier because it's aimed at a character who spends the entire film on the other end of verbal barbs.
There's more context here, which might make the moment seem ill-suited for comedy. In the scene, our heroines, FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and Boston detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) have been captured by a sadistic killer named Julian (Michael McDonald). The two are bound to chairs, and the villain is preparing to torture and murder them.
This doesn't sound funny, right? Before we re-adjudicate the joke, there's even more context. We've previously seen our protagonists at a morgue joking about the mutilated body of one of the killer's victims. It's not just any joke but a pun that—once we hear it, we realize—could not help but be made.
What's the lesson in all of this hunting for context? As always, context matters. Yes, the scene of our heroines tied up with a man readying his knives is unnerving at face value, but the screenplay by Katie Dippold has prepared us for humor in this kind of situation. This is a fairly dark comedy about some crass and sometimes cruel people, and director Paul Feig quite solidly establishes that tone from some of its earliest scenes.
It also helps that McCarthy is the film's tonal guide. From her first scene, in which she lays an aggressive guilt trip on a man trying to solicit a prostitute and proceeds to chase down the drug dealer she suspects is behind the prostitution ring, the actress shows herself to be a comic force in this role.
The gruff tenor of her voice pours on the sarcasm in nearly every profanity-laden line of dialogue she has. She goes on random, seemingly improvised rants and makes them sound natural while still giving us the impression that every word has been planned out ahead of time. There's an air of confidence to her that makes it perfectly believable when men with whom her character has had a one-night stand start appearing left and right practically begging for another chance with this tough woman who lives in a filthy apartment and doesn't change her shirt in at least a week. A person can fake confidence but not that level of it.
The character stands on her own, but the same cannot be said of her eventual partner. Ashburn is far more subdued—rightfully arrogant about her talents of investigation (shaming even a drug-sniffing dog in her first scene) and pitifully lonely as a result (We see her in her apartment with a cat that's not hers, but she still has a photo of herself holding it). She's a by-the-books operator who doesn't swear and is able to pack up her entire life in a few cardboard boxes.
Ashburn is pretty dull. That's the joke, but it's a limited one. She, unlike Mullins, needs a comic foil, and the character gets what she needs when she leaves her New York City home to go to Boston in order to track down a nefarious and mysterious drug lord. The two reluctantly team up when their paths cross over one of Mullins' arrests.
Ashburn wants to prove to her soon-to-be-transferred boss (Demian Bichir) that she can close this case in order to get his recommendation for a promotion; Mullins wants to ensure that the streets of her city remain safe. Maybe that opposition of motivations is another reason for the unequal balance of the characters. We admire Mullins for her unapologetic brashness and her desire to do good for people other than herself, and it's definitely not for her own benefit—a fact we learn when, after questioning a suspect in a unit of a dilapidated apartment complex full of questionable characters, she stops by her own apartment a few floors below. She even arrested her own brother (Michael Rapaport) because he had developed a nasty drug addiction. It worked. He's clean, but her trashy family (a special home-cooked meal of frozen chicken nuggets) hates her for it.
That's enough of the touchy-feely stuff, even though Dippold manages to subtly infuse such moments into the proceedings—usually in between landing jokes. This is a comedy of adding insult to injury, and that's where Ashburn's character finally fits into the mold.
She's the butt of most of the gags, like when she lies that "her" cat ran away before she left for Boston and Mullins, quite sincerely (and that's the key to the joke), comes to the verge of tears by inferring that the cat bolted because of Ashburn's miserable life. Then there's the film's most disturbing, squirm-inducing gag that plays off Ashburn's belief that she's an expert in everything. She performs an emergency tracheotomy on a man choking on his food at a restaurant (She thinks she can, you see, because she happened upon the procedure on television), and the horrified looks and squeals of the patrons are only upstaged by the arrival of the paramedics ("You're not a doctor," Ashburn snipes in response to some not-so-veiled criticism; "Well, neither are you," the paramedic retorts).Of course, the two partners learn from each other, although the lessons are really one-sided in favor of Mullins (Ashburn goes out for a night at a local dive bar, and the third act is all about her accepting Mullins' philosophy to "bring the heat"). That's the right way to go, though. The Heat certainly benefits from the pairing of these two characters, but through and through, this is McCarthy's show.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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