July 07, 2013

THE HEAT Has Heart And Chemistry, Too Few Laughs

"That was almost cool.  Almost."
Oh Paul Feig, why do you make it so hard to love you?

When you creates something as singularly wonderful as Freaks and Geeks, I really want to be on your side and love everything you make from then on.  When the first trailers for Bridesmaids came out, I admit I was pretty underwhelmed.  But Kristen Wiig can be plenty funny and a few friends really enjoyed the film so I went into it with an open mind.  I ultimately found it to be only moderately better than average, with some serious laughs that were a bit too few and far between.  The same could be said about The Heat.

I'll be honest: at this point I have absolutely no comedic interest in Sandra Bullock.  I loved her early work in stuff like Speed, The Net and even Demolition Man.  I think she carries serious dramatic weight in stuff like The Blind Side or the upcoming Gravity, which I'm just dying to see.  But her buttoned-down, socially awkward shtick from stuff like Miss Congeniality or The Proposal is not only unfunny, it's downright boring to watch.  I was really hoping that Feig and McCarthy would be able to coax something edgier or more compelling out of her, but Bullock's FBI agent Sarah Ashburn is simply more of the same.  I just don't think she's very funny.  But hey, if you enjoy her comedy work and this trailer made you laugh, then I'm sure The Heat is your kind of flick.

McCarthy on the other hand is top notch, taking a character that is literally described as a bull in a china shop and imparting upon her a remarkable sense of not only depth, but also grace - no easy feat considering the high percentage of her dialogue which is just the word "fuck."  Her East Boston beat cop Shannon Mullins is the terror of her precinct, scaring the living piss out of her fellow male officers.  But she's also got a big heart, the kind of person who became a cop so she could keep her neighborhood safe.  And her family hates her because she sent one of her four brothers to prison on drug charges, but she did it out of love, the only way she could think of to protect him.  It's the kind of backstory material that would easily fall flat in the hands of a lesser performer, but McCarthy really makes it work.  For all her profane bluster, Mullins is actually a total sweetheart and that's 100% due to McCarthy's incredible pathos.

I will admit I experienced a spark of excitement during the film's vintage 70's style opening credits, and it's clear that Feig is shooting for the tone of some classic odd couple buddy-cop comedies like the great Midnight Run, Lethal Weapon or 48 Hours.  Those movies live and die on the chemistry between their leads and I'll admit that Bullock and McCarthy are nothing short of great together.  They have a natural rhythm, an easy give and take that just plain works.  Their extended drunken bonding scene in a local dive bar is a riot and when Bullock's character finally loosens up towards the end the two are super watchable.  In fact, there's a scene with a knife in the finale which is simply fantastic.  This kind of connection is a totally intangible thing that simply can't be faked, and these two have unquestionably got it.

In fact, I wish that they had a stronger script to prop up their talents.  Here's what the movie gets right: despite their respective foibles, both characters are super competent.  Ashburn has closed more cases that anyone else in the department and is constantly outsmarting drug-sniffing dogs (a solid running bit) while Mullins is able to disarm a man with startling speed and skill.  Both are able to pick up on the subtlest of clues like a stray cigarette butt that doesn't match the rest of the ashtray and they're not afraid to mix it up with the boys.  Here's another plus: the fact that Ashburn and Mullins are women is almost entirely incidental.  It's not ignored, as evidenced by the mini-makeover scene in a bar bathroom that's been so heavily featured in the trailers, but this isn't a movie about women trying to make it in a man's world.  Ashburn and Mullins are cops above all else, and what's more they're damn good cops.

Here's what the script gets wrong: the story totally blows.  Not only is it two-dimensional and dull, but it's full of weird narrative dead ends.  There's a long sequence where Bullock tries to hit on a guy in a club so she can plant a bug on his phone, but then they never actually use the bug for any reason.  They don't track him with it, they don't listen in to his phone calls...it's just forgotten.  Dan Bakkedahl shows up halfway through as a chauvinist albino DEA agent, a choice that feels even weirder appearing so late in a film that's largely devoid of sexism.  And a boring story would be forgivable if the movie was truly funny, but it's just not.  It often gets sidetracked by long, extended jokes that not only exist outside the plot, but they fall tragically flat.  There's a scene in a Denny's where Ashburn tries to give a choking man a tracheotomy with a drinking straw that goes on forever and is only vaguely redeemed when the EMT shows up to give her shit for such an obviously dumb move.  And there's a lot of stuff with Mullins' family that plays on their Boston accents and their general townie-ness.  It's all feels like a pretty cheap shot, but I'm willing to give Feig a bit of a pass because her brothers are all played by locals like Nate Corddry, Bill Burr and one-time New Kid On The Block Joey McIntyre.  So while I rolled my eyes at five minutes of Bullock's confusion over Corddry's pronunciation of the word "narc," a lot of the family's back and forth at least feels like it comes from an authentic place.

But yeah, in the end The Heat just feels like a big missed opportunity, a squandering of great lead chemistry and smart girl power on a mediocre story with too few honest laughs.  But like I said, if the trailer made you laugh then you'll definitely enjoy the movie they're selling you.  It always felt like a long shot to me, but I always love it when a film somehow manages to subvert my expectations.  That would have been a pleasant surprise.

I haven't given up on you yet, Paul Feig.  Maybe next time.

Title: The Heat
Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Michael Rappaport, Demian Bechir, Marlon Wayans, Spoken Reasons, Nate Corddray, Bill Burr, Joey McIntyre, Jane Curtain
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

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