Confession: I’ve never seen Bridesmaids. But after seeing director Paul Feig’s follow-up The Heat, with a screenplay by Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold, I feel inclined to take a look at this wildly popular and reportedly raunchy blockbuster. The Heat is a very funny movie, but it’s not just a very funny movie. It also does a lot to exterminate the absurd argument that “women can’t be funny,” and introduces two characters who subvert the archetypes that even the best Hollywood movies often can’t avoid.
Plus, it’s a buddy comedy about women. How rare is that? Pretty rare.
Here are three reasons to check out The Heat, which is far from perfect but consistently enjoyable nonetheless:
1. It’s a movie about women in which the subject of romance barely comes up. Sandra Bullock plays Sarah Ashburn, a Boston homicide detective assigned to work with a foulmouthed and ruthless city cop (Melissa McCarthy) to take down a murderous drug ring. Sounds familiar, right? And yet, as it went on, I realized that this movie had ignored one of the fundamental tropes of any movie with a female lead who starts the movie single. There’s no love interest! No hunky man vying for their affections, no longing for a time when they’ll have a man to take care of her, no sex scenes, no gratuitous nudity, no awkward attempt to shoehorn a love story into what is otherwise a straightforward movie about a raucous workplace friendship. None of it. And the movie is much better for it, because in the time that a lesser movie would have taken to establish this pedestrian subplot, The Heat shows us the evolution of Ashburn and Mullins’ interactions so that, when they inevitably reconcile their differences, the movie earns the relationship.
2. Feig understands that you can’t rush comedy (or perfection, but he doesn’t seem as concerned with that one). Modern movie comedies often induce whiplash. “Look at this funny character! Now look at that one! Look back at the first one! Did you hear that funny joke? Here comes another one! And another! Remember that second funny character? We should look at him again!” By contrast, The Heat contains several scenes that start out funny, growing in impact as Feig allows them time to build to grander heights of ridiculousness. Melissa McCarthy’s first scene, for instance, finds her busting a young man (played by Tony Hale of Arrested Development!) for engaging with a prostitute. As their confrontation becomes increasingly hostile and mobile, we understand Shannon Mullins’ police style even before the characters repeatedly tell us. Later, a memorable night of drunken debauchery unfolds at a reasonably slow clip so that we can fully take in the scope of Ashburn and Mullins’ booze-fueled antics. Even a simple gag like the one that finds Ashburn and Mullins struggling to be the first to open a door for the other, becomes funnier as it becomes clear that the two women aren’t going to let this trivial stumbling block slip away from them. This relaxed approach to comedy makes the movie somewhat overlong and repetitive, but it’s certainly preferable to the hyper-caffeinated excess that comedy directors often mistake for wit.
3. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy have dynamite chemistry. These two actresses are perfectly suited to their roles and to their interactions, which have the rapport of two women who like each other well enough to know exactly which buttons to push. And there are blessedly few jokes about Bullock’s advanced age (by antiquated movie star standards only) or McCarthy’s unconventional appearance (again, by movie star standards only). These women are funny because they take their jobs so seriously that they can’t see the faults in their plans of attack, and because they’re both good enough at their jobs that this character flaw isn’t fatal. Oh, and they like profanity. A lot.
I’m not going to tell you that The Heat is a great movie. It’s not. It places far too much emphasis on a needlessly convoluted and mind-numbingly conventional story of drug lords and double-crosses. The ensemble lacks standouts beyond the central pair, a surprising fault considering the amount of praise I’ve heard about the entire cast of Bridesmaids. The movie occasionally forays into somewhat mystifying gross-out gags, including an emergency tracheotomy that ultimately has no bearing on the main story. And despite the progressivism inherent in casting two females as the leads in a buddy-cop movie without calling undue attention to their presence within the movie itself, The Heat is hardly groundbreaking, the tried-and-true narrative of professional enemies becoming personal allies hitting all of the expected notes.
But guess what? It’s about women, and it’s really funny. Are you surprised? I sure hope not. The last thing we need is another round of articles about how surprising it is that this movie is a hit (as I expect it will be) like the ones we got after Sex and the City and Bridesmaids and The Help. The problem isn’t us, Hollywood, it’s you. Make more movies like this one. Allow women the opportunity to do what men do onscreen without banging us over the head with the significance of what the women are doing. It’s about time a feisty, messy movie like The Heat came along to remind us that comedy is comedy – no gender labels necessary.