Is it possible that Melissa McCarthy needs to be more abrasive?
Since breaking out on the big screen in 2011’s Bridesmaids, McCarthy has delivered a handful of performances that are each rooted in aggression of some sort. The Heat, in which she co-stars with Sandra Bullock as reluctantly paired law-enforcement officers looking to bust up a Boston drug ring, continues the pattern. McCarthy’s Shannon Mullins is the loose cannon to Bullock’s by-the-book Sarah Ashburn, a tornado of foul-mouthed insults and physical abuse. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a suspected criminal or her precinct captain; if you’re in the same room with Mullins, chances are you’re going to either be berated or beaten.
As exhilarating as it can be to watch a comic performer this unhinged – especially a comic actress, since actresses are rarely allowed this sort of leash – McCarthy is, in an odd way, restrained by The Heat. I’m not sure if she just doesn’t have that other gear or if the movie is hesitant to let her shift into it, but McCarthy doesn’t fully embody her character’s comic fury in a way that, say, Adam Sandler did in his early films. In the likes of Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, Sandler is startlingly psychotic. McCarthy is treading similar territory, but her tornado never touches ground. The problem with The Heat isn’t that McCarthy is too grotesque – to pick up on a critique that circled around her earlier this year related to Identity Thief – but that she isn’t grotesque enough.
I’m not exactly calling for more meanness. Another reason The Heat underwhelmed is that so many of the laughs rely on lazy verbal assaults. Insult humor is a storied comic tradition, to be sure, but here it’s often a crutch and comprised of little more than invective epithets. I prefer a little creativity with my cruelty, which is probably why Mullins lengthy description of the minuteness of her captain’s testicles is one of the rare belittlement scenes that worked for me. (The repeated and obvious put-downs of an albino character? Not so much.)
McCarthy is, in an odd way, restrained by The Heat.
Far funnier to my mind – and perhaps the definitive moment in terms of the McCarthy persona – is the scene in which Mullins squeezes her car in between two tightly parked cruisers in the police lot. Infuriated by the fact that the cars on either side are so close (never mind that she parked there), Mullins works herself up into a temper tantrum and ends up crawling through the windows of the vehicles while cursing out their owners. It’s one of the few scenes in which that absurd, antisocial humor of someone like Sandler can be felt.
I also enjoyed an early chase scene in which Mullins climbs a fence to grab a suspect and they both go tumbling over the other side. Though both are injured in the fall, they resume the race, limping along at an agonizingly slow pace. Here director Paul Feig and screenwriter Katie Dippold not only take advantage of McCarthy as a physical comedienne, they also amusingly send up that immortal cop-movie cliché: the foot chase. (In general I wish there was more genre spoofing in The Heat.)
Bullock, meanwhile, is a more-than-capable straight woman (she’s always been underrated by critics for her comic timing). Yet the relationship between Ashburn and Mullins is one of the ways The Heat goes soft. For a crude, R-rated comedy, the movie spends way too much time on the bonding between these two. The ending, especially, pumps up the treacle when an earlier, quite funny montage of them sharing a raucous night at a dive bar would have been enough for me in terms of relationship building.
That bar sequence was just one of the parts that reminded me of The Other Guys, a far superior send-up of buddy-cop comedies. There, the bonding of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg was part of the joke and never meant to reflect any sort of emotional reality. The Heat seems hesitant to make that break from feel-good formula to all-out insanity, which is too bad. Doing so might have really let McCarthy loose.