Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
Cop, buddy, and odd couple comedies are male-dominated genres, though not for any particularly good reason aside from outdated stereotypes that women aren’t funny and don’t serve in law enforcement. In that sense, ‘The Heat’ is a big deal simply for casting Sandra Bullock as an uptight FBI agent and Melissa McCarthy as a gruff Boston cop forced to work together to track down a drug kingpin. That fact alone hardly makes for a good movie, and after seeing the ads for ‘The Heat’, my expectations couldn’t have been lower. Which might be part of the reason why I was nicely surprised by ‘The Heat’, first because the makers of the movie seem to have a good grasp of what equality in movies should really look like, and second because McCarthy is such a force to be reckoned with that she may very well be the most talented, bankable comedic actress (or actor) working today.
Bullock plays Special Agent Sarah Ashburn, a by-the-books, arrogant FBI special agent working out of New York who’s sent to Boston on the trail of some murders and possibly a promotion. Standing in her way is Detective Shannon Mullins (played by McCarthy), an aggressive, slovenly loose cannon who resents the FBI’s and Ashburn’s intrusion on her turf. Mullins and Ashburn are, of course, a classic odd couple — Ashburn is cold, professional, and relies on meticulous detective work, while Mullins is a street smart, foul-mouthed slob who gets results by busting heads.
As you’d guess, Mullins and Ashburn must find common ground to pursue a mysterious drug kingpin named Larkin who has connections to Mullins’ ex-con brother Jason (played by Michael Rapaport). Performers from the improv, sketch, and comedy worlds fill out supporting roles as various agents and Mullins’ clamorous Boston family. However, my favorite is Thomas F. Wilson (that’s Biff from ‘Back to the Future’) as the captain of Mullins’ precinct, a reminder that Wilson really deserves to be working more.
While Bullock’s nervous energy and willingness to play along elevates Ashburn to being more than just a straight man, ‘The Heat’, like the vastly inferior ‘Identity Thief’, shows that McCarthy is a unique talent who’s more than capable of headlining a film that requires her to do most of the comedic heavy lifting. As in most of her roles, no matter how inconsiderate, pushy, or rude she’s being, McCarthy plays it so straight and without subterfuge that she somehow comes across as someone who’s simply honest and blunt to a fault, which somehow makes her more likeable, kind of like a younger Estelle Getty in ‘The Golden Girls’ but with the improv chops to keep a steady stream of laughs coming at all times. In addition, McCarthy has a vulnerability just below the surface that makes her great in more tender or dramatic moments.
What’s great about ‘The Heat’ is that it seems to know what equal representation in entertainment should mean. While there are a small handful of moments that address some of the difficulties women face in law enforcement, the fact that Mullins and Ashburn are women is largely incidental to the story, where you could make those characters men without having to change much else. Equal representation shouldn’t just mean more women in movies for women that are all about the characters being women, but more women in movies for everyone in roles that could be played by men or women where a character’s personality and actions are way more important than their gender.
I think some are understandably rooting for McCarthy because her looks and weight are outside the norm for women in entertainment, which may help women who don’t look like models get considered for more roles. But the reason why all of us should be rooting for McCarthy is because she’s one of the funniest people out there and has that special talent — much like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson — where her presence and energy makes every movie she’s in better, whether she’s starring, supporting, or just appearing in a cameo. If people can get past the lame ads, I think they’ll have a great time at ‘The Heat’, which should solidify McCarthy as a true top-of-the-bill movie star.
‘The Heat’ is rated R and opens today.