If you’ve never seen Sandra Bullock blow a peanut shell out of her nose, and you’d like to, The Heat is your movie. That’s not meant sarcastically: It’s one of the highlights of this often dismal but occasionally inspired comedy from Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, which pits Bullock’s hoity-toity FBI agent against a brassy Boston cop played by Melissa McCarthy. The two are thrown together in pursuit of an elusive drug lord, and much of the movie — too much of it — is spent testing the boundaries of how loud and obnoxious McCarthy can be. Feig doesn’t hand this able comic actress the gift of freedom; he simply gives her enough rope, which isn’t nearly the same thing.
But The Heat has a spark of something, irregularly ignited by the unlikely kinship between these two actresses. Bullock’s Special Agent Ashburn and McCarthy’s Detective Mullins both have an attitude problem: Ashburn comes off as a know-it-all who alienates the men in her department (even though she does know it all much better than they do). And Mullins doesn’t give a rat’s butt for anyone else: Told her boss is looking for her, she snaps, “Tell him I’ll be there at sharply go-fuck-yourself o’clock.”
One of The Heat‘s failures is the way it attempts, feebly, to say something serious about the ways women are treated in the workplace. The suggestion is that both Ashburn and Mullins know exactly what they’re doing but don’t get the respect (and, most likely, the salary) they deserve. On the other hand, these two are hell to work with, and, being movie characters, they need to discover their inner vulnerabilities before they can become truly good at what they do. Snore. In the end, The Heat, like Bridesmaids before it, has to be about feelings. That’s often true of male buddy pictures, too, but The Heat could have come up with something better than its “Gee, Officer Krupke”-style “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived” explanation for why these women can’t work and play well with others.
Yet Bullock and McCarthy work and play well together, which is what counts. It’s possible that McCarthy and the directors who work with her believe that because she’s big, everything she does has to be outsized. In The Heat, that translates to lots of insults and scatological retorts, all delivered at decibel levels suitable for deaf dogs. But McCarthy’s at her best with the subtle reaction shot, or winding her way toward a slow-burning zinger. At times, she and Bullock tease out the best in each other. Bullock cedes everything to McCarthy: She knows she can’t make a bigger noise than her overbearing co-star, so she bobs and weaves between the lines instead. This is accord as chemistry, and it works.
You can see it best in the peanut-snorting scene, where Bullock very obviously — and almost unsuccessfully — tries not to let McCarthy crack her up. That tension, and the release of it, makes the moment glorious. It also highlights a key angle of McCarthy’s gifts as a comic actress: She sops up all the embarrassment around her, freeing anyone else onscreen with her from looking totally ridiculous, which is its own kind of generosity. In other words, she’s the friend to have around when you’ve got something stuck in your nose. Just blow it outta there — you’ll feel much better for it. The last thing you want to do is hold it in.