The Heat

The Heat Movie Review20th Century Fox
Rated R for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence.
Running time: 117 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

There’s a running joke throughout “The Heat” in which love-struck men approach Melissa McCarthy’s foul-mouthed detective character and beg to know why she hasn’t called them after she slept with them.

They whine. They plead. They open their hearts and make themselves vulnerable to her in ways that are so awkward and sad, you almost can’t watch them head on – you almost have to peep at them through a pinhole in a shoebox. She rebuffs them – politely – every time.

It’s just one gag but it’s a beautiful reflection of the way “The Heat” takes film conventions, turns them on their head and reinvents them.  Part of the joke is that this is a reversal of traditional (and archaic) gender roles. But another crucial element is the fact that McCarthy, as a full-figured, brash Boston bad-ass, wouldn’t necessarily seem like a heartbreaker. But she is – and she owns it.

She owns the whole movie, actually, this mismatched-buddy cop comedy in which she and Sandra Bullock inhabit the roles typically reserved for men, especially in the 1980s. Director Paul Feig, whose “Bridesmaids” upended notions of what a raunchy ensemble comedy could be, does it again here with another genre. McCarthy, who emerged as a star from that 2011 smash hit (and received a supporting-actress Oscar nomination in the process) clearly had free rein to play here, to flex her improv muscles. But the first produced script from Katie Dippold gives her a smart, inspired and wickedly funny foundation from which to work, and she and Bullock enjoy gangbusters chemistry with each other.

Bullock is an expert physical comedian; say what you will about the “Miss Congeniality” movies, she gives it her all in them. Here, she plays the straight woman – the uptight FBI agent forced to team up with McCarthy’s wild card – and not only does she get the slapstick right but she also finds the sadness and loneliness that make her character such a misfit.

The two are stuck working together on a … does it really matter? The investigation has something to do with a bringing down a drug lord.  From a narrative perspective, “The Heat” is pure formula, and it knows it, and it knows that you know it, too. What matters here is the way in which it explores and refreshes the standard details and beats of the genre.

Bullock’s Special Agent Sarah Ashburn is exceedingly competent and eager to please but can’t help alienating everyone around her. She’s the smartest person in the room at all times and can’t stop herself from letting everyone else know that, too. She’s up for a promotion but her boss (Oscar nominee Demian Bichir from “A Better Life”) is reluctant to give it to her.

McCarthy’s Det. Shannon Mullins is also excellent at her job, and also has a way of alienating people. That includes her family: a collection of bickering, blue-collar boors with wicked hardcore Southie accents. (Joey McIntyre is among them, just to ensure authenticity.) When Sarah accompanies Shannon to her childhood home and can’t understand a word they’re saying, it’s a bit that shouldn’t be funny because it’s been done so many times. And yet, like so many other gags in “The Heat,” it has an energy about it that makes it work.

Shannon is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sarah in terms of temperament (and hygiene) but has a similar sense of superiority, and a similar emotional detachment. Do you think it’s possible that these two women will not only learn to work together but become friends and actually change each other for the better? The destination was predetermined long ago; the journey there is riotously funny.

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