The most notorious scene in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids involved the eponymous wedding-party members getting a nasty case of the runs at a most inopportune moment. Less fecally inclined, and penned by a different screenwriter, Feig’s latest crafts its sure-to-be-talked-about gross-out set piece out of an impromptu tracheotomy performed at a Denny’s. No less viscerally off-putting than the Bridesmaids shit-fest, this sequence stands as unfortunate evidence of the continued reliance on the isolated outrageous moment, less transgressive or funny than simply disgusting, by a certain strain of film comedy—or at least the films of Paul Feig.
Luckily, most of the humor in The Heat isn’t predicated on such high-concept moments, but on the sheer I-don’t-give-a-damn vitality of co-lead Melissa McCarthy. Ostensibly an odd-couple pairing between McCarthy’s foul-mouthed, do-it-my-way Boston cop Shannon Mullins and uptight F.B.I. Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock), the film is quite easily dominated by the more vibrant member of this duo. Introduced busting a john soliciting a prostitute and then proceeding to call his wife on his cellphone to inform her of his arrest, Mullins is quickly established as a cop with intimate knowledge of her beat, a disregard for the conventional rules of police business, and utter contempt for authority.
This last trait becomes immediately evident when, after being pissed off that a perp she brought in has been transferred to interrogation by Ashburn before she had a chance to arrive back at the station, Mullins goes on a tirade, discoursing on her boss’s metaphorical testicles, or lack thereof. While on one hand, the rhetorical basis of her critique is tired, caught up as it is in shopworn notions of masculinity, her rant also serves to undercut these notions by having a woman usurp the alpha-male role by sheer force of will. Either way, it’s a tour de force performance by McCarthy, who gleefully discourses on the microscopic size of the police captain’s balls, making sure the whole station can hear her.
There are plenty more such over-the-top moments for the actress throughout the film and, if some of McCarthy’s previous work, including Bridesmaids, occasionally and unfortunately treated her weight as a subject of humor, The Heat shifts the focus to her wonderfully vulgar vibrancy and her character’s ability to make nonsense of seemingly arbitrary protocol simply by ignoring it. Unfortunately, this last tendency means that the film attempts to milk laughs from its venture into rogue-cop territory in which extra-legal policing and even a few moments of questioning bordering on “enhanced interrogation” are played for gleeful chuckles. The light comic tone does nothing to negate the tacit endorsement of the pair’s Dirty Harry-style shenanigans.
Far more problematic, though, is the fact that, apart from McCarthy’s performance, there’s little here to grab on to. Bullock’s F.B.I. agent, so goody-goody that she uses the term “bull feces” instead of “bullshit,” always feels out of place in the film, and not in the intended fish-out-of-water sense. As a comic foil to McCarthy, Bullock serves some purpose, but when asked to carry either the comedy or action sequences by herself, she continually falls flat, particularly in a late scene in which the actress lets loose with a long pent-up round of swearing to curse out a roomful of misogynistic cops.
The buddy angle which finds the two leads moving from hating each other to becoming best pals is particularly unconvincing, with a final sentimental touch to seal the deal ringing patently false. Similarly, the whole action plotline which finds Mullins and Ashburn teaming up to take down a top Boston drug dealer feels almost beside the point. Indeed, a late-game plot twist in this through line proves to be the epitome of superfluousness. All of which essentially leaves us with McCarthy, who definitively cements her status as a legitimate comic talent, while leaving her co-star stumbling behind in her wake.