Reactions to the female buddy-cop movie, The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, have been predictably polarizing. Many female critics have praised the film for its self-aware reworking of the tropes of the buddy-cop movie, while others, including Andrew O’Hehir, express disappointment that The Heat falls into storytelling cliches–drug dealers, many of them minorities, hiding out in abandoned warehouses–offering regressive humor in the guise of feminism. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wells, citing A.O. Scott’s indifferent review, seems to offer a tacit disdain for the lowbrow (or possibly white bread) humor of the film, even resolving to “just man up” and fork over the fifteen bucks to see the movie. Implied in many of these reviews is the idea that a mainstream film with two female leads also somehow needs to be revolutionary or subversive in order to be worth our time.
A description of The Heat’s plot would lead us to believe that it is formulaic: Straitlaced FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) joins forces with the edgy, emotional Boston street cop Shannon Mullins to pursue a drug kingpin. Ashburn is so conservative and isolated by her duty to her work that her only companion is a cat, a neighbor’s cat. Mullins is bawdy and sexually self-assured, and the streets of Boston seem to be littered with needy guys that she has abandoned. They each have their own motivations for pursuing the kingpin–Ashburn wants a promotion, Mullins wants to protect her brother–and like most buddy-cop movies, they violate a laundry list of police protocols along the way. Purely on that level, I can see why O’Hehir might be hoping for more, even when he acknowledges that much of this is completely “agreeable” and fun, especially the undeniable chemistry between the two lead actresses. O’Hehir’s reading is pretty close to my initial reaction to the film: it was a fun way to pass two hours at the movies with my family, even if it ran a little long in places.
But what sold me on the film was the NPR review by Linda Holmes. While her headline oversells The Heat a little bit by describing it as “revolutionary,” her review captures the aspects of the movie that are pretty rewarding. First, I think she’s right to point out that the film doesn’t overplay McCarthy’s weight, focusing instead on her manic energy (other than one early scene where Mullins struggles to squeeze out of a window). Second, Holmes points out some of the ways that the film uses typical female buddy-movie tropes and seems to turn them on their head. Throughout the film, there are several jokes at Ashburn’s expense regarding her conservative wardrobe (all buttoned-up pantsuits), which sets the stage for the inevitable makeover scene, which takes a place in a nightclub where Mullins (quite literally) rips Ashburn’s clothes to shreds in order to make her fit in at the nightclub where they are staking out a dealer. As Holmes points out, the scene is a “twisted, tortured parody” of typical makeover scenes where a character’s beauty is revealed only when she gets the right (usually expensive) clothes.
To some extent, we’ve been here before with Bullock. As Anne Helen Petersen pointed out some time ago, Bullock’s films are often filled with the promise of transformation, hence her appeal to her female fans. She is often cast as a “non-glamorous protagonist” who is able to transform herself–and her material conditions–by the end of the film. But what makes this film work for me is that this transformation isn’t based on romantic affirmation or even necessarily professional affirmation from a male boss. Instead, it’s almost completely based on the friendship between the two women. If this film were subject to the “Bechdel Test,” which asks whether a movie depicts two female characters talking about something other than romance with a male character, not only would it pass, but it also seems to suggest that romance is beside the point. Yes, Ashburn shows a slight attraction to an FBI colleague (played by Marlon Wayans), but the real story is is the female friendship. The police subplot, we know from having seen others in the genre, will work itself out, and it does so mostly in entertaining fashion.
I don’t think The Heat is revolutionary. It’s also easy to forget some of the precedents when it comes to the female buddy-cop genre (after all, Cagney and Lacey was a top-rated TV show for years). But it still offers something relatively rare, in much the same way that Bridesmaids upended the male “wild party” comedy subgenre. It offers two, talented female comediennes in entertaining roles that subtly challenges gender norms. And in a multiplex dominated by somber superheroes and zombie hunters, we need more of this type of counter-programming.