I really don't want to talk about The Heat as some sort of feminist moment. It's not the film that's going to sweep in and reconfigure the playing field, it's just a summer action comedy: a 21 Jump Street, a This is the End, a Hot Fuzz, a The Other Guys. The only difference is that this time there are two ladies over 40 in place of a few raunchy dudes, and for some reason, this seems to change the evaluation criteria for a straight, uncomplicated comedy. Box office reporters for the weekend were stunned by the film's "surprise" clout in the face of muscular White House Down, noting its supposed "female-centricness" as reason for their shrug. Professional critics, too, have largely devalued The Heat's humor, focusing too much on determining its rate of failure or success according to strange, irrelevant factors like whether or not it 'does anything different' from a "guy" film, or, how shrill its characters are (No, seriously, the Village Voice write-up is actually called "The Heat Would Be More Likable If It Stopped Yelling Everything"). Every article on the film seems to open up with a note on how much raw estrogen is in the film, making careful note of the impact of Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig's last team-up, Bridesmaids. Suddenly, The Heat can't merely be entertaining, it has to be game-changing. Suddenly, it's about 'empowerment', 'feminism', being 'woman-centric' but somehow? Apparently it's failing, because, well, if you listen to critics: it's just like yet another one of those reductive 'guy-oriented' comedies. You know...thin on plot and mostly just built around the two actors riffing off one another through a series of off-color jokes.
So unheard of, right? As McCarthy's character might put it: fuck that.
Sure, if we're counting plot tropes, there's nothing really new about The Heat. Straight-laced, prim n' snotty FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is sent to Boston in pursuit of a local drug-lord. Problem is, to close the case she'll need to learn to work with irascible, foul-mouthed detective Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), a woman who's made it her job to take the city by the balls. Along the way, all manner of expected turns, chases, and undercover sight gags are brought in to play. Mullins is the 'bad' cop, Ashburn is the 'good' one. Mullins does things unconventionally, Ashburn follows the book. So it is, right? That's the thing about genres and subgenres, the beauty is in the little differences and subtle variations. In The Heat those variations do not come necessarily in the form of actively attempting to serve as some sort of failed 'feminist moment', but instead in watching Bullock and McCarthy themselves. Bullock gets to play with the Miss Congeniality casting that made her one of America's sweethearts, sure, but when you blend that with Melissa McCarthy's knack for uncomfortable, volatile comedy...you've got something. McCarthy is brilliantly uncouth here. She amplifies everything about her Bridesmaids character and gives us a confident, comfortable, tough-as-nails loudmouth who could hold her own in just about any cinematic PD anywhere. Mullins is great, but Mullins is made greater by Ashburn.
The Heat may not be a game-changing breakthrough for a new, feminist mode of filmmaking, but it's certainly not a step in the wrong direction. As NPR's Linda Holmes recently noted in her piece "At the Movies, The Women Are Gone", there's a noticeable absence of female protagonists on the screen this summer. That's a problem, and it's one movies like The Heat can work to alleviate. Box office numbers don't lie: we love a good dumb comedy, and this is something Hollywood has too frequently been reluctant to give us without big-name dudes. Our lady-starring comedic landscape has been largely populated by insipid rom coms and often vapidly mean-spirited 'competitions' (Bachelorette, The House Bunny). The Heat is neither of those, and, come on: it's admittedly rather refreshing to see two comedic actresses in their prime work together, take charge, and own it.
I can believe that some may not be amused by The Heat, but I have a hard time buying that it's somehow less effective than a wealth of other buddy comedies before it. The Heat landed at a 62% on Rotten Tomatoes where many other formula twists (all solid comedies, too) succeeded. Look at this RT percentages and tell me there's not something off here:
The Other Guys: 78%
21 Jump Street: 85%
This is the End: 84%
Hot Fuzz: 91%?