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The Heat - Film Review

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Reviewed on July 8th, 2013
Fox presents a film directed by Paul Feig
Screenplay by Katie Dippold
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir and Michael Rapaport
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: July 11th, 2013

One of the missteps of The Heat isn't its lack of jokes or laughs but it's insistence on treating its material with frivolous humour and a general lack of seriousness when it seems necessary. It is also a vehicle that denies its leading actress Sandra Bullock the opportunity to show what an emotional force she can be. Simply content with establishing itself as one of the first female buddy cop films, The Heat's humour is obvious and overly broad and its crime story is derivative and often lacking in dramatic heft. Though it might have equaled its male-centric subgenre, one wishes it brought more dramatic weight and heart to surpass it.

Bullock plays FBI agent Ashburn, who is extremely professional and by the book but also lonely and estranged from her male colleagues. She is told by her superior Hale (Demian Bichir) that there is a promotion on offer if she is able to solve a case involving a drug dealer in Boston. She moves there from New York but doesn't know the area. She encounters a tough and extremely erratic street cop in Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), who is reckless but knowledgeable of Boston. Putting aside their differences, they try to work together to solve the drug case. However, it becomes apparent that there is a more personal stake for Mullins because her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport), who has just been released from prison, is involved in the drug case too.

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Director Paul Feig's previous film Bridesmaids examined female friendships through a puerile and scatological lens. The Heat isn't as lowbrow a comedy but it sets its ambitions low by duplicating the male buddy films of the past rather than providing unique insights into its female characters. The film mimics the same archetypes found in the pseudo-Western cop films like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hrs. The rogue cowboy in these films becomes more sanitised and domesticated by someone that he would never once have considered his equal. Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. were like the Lone Ranger and Tonto and complimented each other's characters both comically and dramatically.

The reverse situation is true of The Heat because the rogue cop Mullins' care for her brother and her lethal force approach are valued extensively over Ashburn's lonely meekness. By refusing to cut away from McCarthy's improvised comedy, Feig allows her aggression and belligerence towards criminals and her ongoing squabbles with Ashburn to dominate proceedings, often stalling the drive of the thin, single track narrative. Glimpses into Mullin's family life work to humanise and deepen her character's backstory so that she appears more morally conflicted than we might have expected but the brevity of the subplot softens the emotional punch.  

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By comparison, Ashburn is underwritten in Katie Dippold's screenplay. Her inner life is cold, devoid of friends or family and reduced to empty nights at home, enlivened somewhat by the film's best joke involving a neighbour's stray cat. The character's loneliness is an undeveloped feeling that exists only to perpetuate the likelihood and predictability of her friendship with Mullins. The sustainability of Sandra Bullock's twenty year career is due to her seamless transitions between comedy and drama, which has prevented her from being demoted to secondary roles. In spite of some funny, quick lipped lines, Feig fails to utilise Bullock's greatest asset as an actress, which is her dramatic fire, delegating her to remain formal and proper but weaker in the face McCarthy's conspicuous outlandishness.

Both police work and crime are also under researched and delivered inauthentically to justify the film's perpetually jovial tone and tension-free air. Some buddy cop films place the crime and police work first and then discover humour in these situations. Yet Mullins and Ashburn are part of a police unit that is inconsequently free to interrogate by playing Russian roulette with a loaded revolver against a suspect's groin or hanging them off a balcony by their ankles. Short but vivid bursts of violence in the film's final act, including a self-inflicted knife wound gag, also jar uneasily with the predominantly lightweight mood.

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There are pockets of big laughs in the film, particularly when the film strikes it's often self-deprecating tone. But given Bullock's experience in the comedy genre and McCarthy's increasingly popular, manic performances, it is not unreasonable to expect more from this talented duo beyond penetrating a male orientated subgenre, which itself in recent years has failed to ignite anything other than the worn, proven templates of past glories.