Of the duo that makes up “The Heat,” it’s been a while since Sandra Bullock (of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”) has starred in anything, whereas Melissa McCarthy has been everywhere lately (“The Hangover Part III” and “Identity Thief”) thanks to the aforementioned “Bridesmaids,” her breakout performance. So it makes sense that she would work with Feig again, and that Feig would try to update the buddy cop subgenre with two women in starring roles. But the laughs here are inconsistent; the relationships unbelievable; the plot too tedious. “The Heat” just can’t find the right rhythm.
The film introduces us first to FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock), so efficient at her job—and egotistical about it—that the other agents, who all happen to be male, hate working with her. She thinks she deserves a promotion, but boss Hale (Demián Bichir, of “Savages”), points out that her inability to work with others (demonstrated by “countless complaints of arrogance, competitiveness, showmanship”) is holding her back. So he sends her to Boston to track down a new, mysterious drug lord whose enforcer Julian (Michael McDonald) is leaving bodies dismembered and bloodied around town. Find Julian, find the drug lord, close the case, get the promotion. It all seems cut and dry.
But then Ashburn arrives in Boston and finds herself out of her depth, unfamiliar with the neighborhoods and unsure of how to interact with brash Bostonians and again resorting to her snooty, elitist ways. So Boston police officer Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) is like a punch in the face—literally. She’s loud, abrasive, rude, vulgar, willing to break the rules, to talk back to her boss, to steal other people’s property, to be unprofessional in every way. When she calls Ashburn out on her hoity-toity ways, Ashburn criticizes Mullins’s unbecoming behavior—and, of course, they have to work together.
So through their forced partnership, we learn a little more about each woman: that Ashburn is recently divorced because she was too committed to the job, that Mullins refuses to maintain a steady relationship for the same reason, that Ashburn is worried about her appearance because of a fear of being disrespected by others, that Mullins’s brother Jason (Michael Rapaport) recently got out of jail after being put away by Mullins herself for dealing drugs. And supposedly we have to believe that they would build a friendship, too, one based on unity in the face of rival a rival DEA agent’s rampant sexism and misogyny and hilarious antics in a club, in a dive bar, and around Mullins’s family. Then, yay, true friendship! Catching the bad guy comes too, of course.
But there’s surprisingly little to the backstories of these women, and the skimpiness is seemingly to make room for the chemistry between Bullock and McCarthy. There’s not enough to Bullock’s straight woman act, though, and too much to McCarthy’s crazed defender of the law; they seem not at all like real, actual people and too much like “types” made up to annoy each other. And because McCarthy is allowed to spout off nonsense on behalf of her character far too often, various jokes feel repetitive and worn-down; the law of diminishing returns applies here. The first time Mullins calls Ashburn manly and attractive, funny! The next few times they continuously question each other’s femininity, not that funny. Their drawn-out duels about who is right about the case, whose methods are better, who should take charge—they feel, well, drawn out, and a tacked-on plot about Mullins’s unsupportive family is a waste of time. Particularly wasted is Jane Curtin, a comedy icon who has maybe two or three lines in the entire film; couldn’t some of McCarthy’s cursing been swapped in for more Curtin screentime?
It’s not that either McCarthy or Bullock are bad, but only that they have very little to work with. The film paints this picture of them as victims of sexism in the workplace—and too often, they are—but it also presents both women as overwhelmingly unlikeable. “The Heat” could have been a satiric film about the legitimate, institutional problems facing women in these kinds of high-intensity, criminal justice professions, but it uses misogyny as a crutch for cheap jokes rather than analyzing male/female relations in a smart way. The averageness of “The Heat” ends up overwhelming its ambition.
Enjoy reading this review? Check out our roundup of what other films are opening this week.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.