The Heat Dir. Paul Feig

[20th Century Fox; 2013]

Styles: buddy cop, comedy
Others: 21 Jump Street, Cop Out, Hot Fuzz, Bad Boys II

I don’t wanna go too hard on fascist cinema in this review. I confess that I enjoy Triumph of the Will’s Nazi propaganda for its formal genius, and Dirty Harry’s cop-off-the-leash thrills never fail to suck me in. I don’t forgive these films for their politics — and they are all the more disturbing for their allure — but as condemnable as that makes them, they are each major aesthetic contributions to cinema, and that gives even their fascism a positive charge: it forces us to seriously engage with the relationship between a film’s craftsmanship and its message, and to question just how much we will permit in the name of “fantasy” and “escapism.” Perhaps those movies should never have been made, but they were, and they have had both contemporary merit. No one is about to throw out Parsifal for being antisemitic.

A mediocrity like The Heat, on the other hand, has nothing to offer history. It uses shoddy workmanship to produce cheap laughs and romanticize a police state without a hint of irony.

The film first introduces Sandra Bullock’s character, FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn, who despite her arrogance and social chill, is extremely competent at her job. She single-handedly reveals every major stash missed by colleagues and sniffer dogs in a drug bust. Then, we meet Melissa McCarthy’s character, Detective Shannon Mullins, who finds a man speaking to a hooker and brutally manhandles and humiliates him in a scene that would have caused a massive outcry were the genders reversed. She then exchanges insults with a pimp on his corner and chases him for holding a joint, ending in McCarthy brutally assaulting him with a watermelon.

The two meet in a generic “find the kingpin” plot that has absolutely no intrigue or logical continuity. Obviously these two are going to meet, clash, bond, find and stop the kingpin, and teach each other the pros and cons of their lives — except that Melissa McCarthy is the only one who does any teaching, and by the film’s end she is held up as a shining example of policing.

Both characters are repulsive, but I cannot stress enough what a destabilizing and psychotic presence Mullins is: she beats suspects during police station interrogations, stores dozens of illegal weapons in her apartment’s refrigerator, and waves a gun in the face of any civilian who even slightly annoys her. The film laughs at her vulgar attitude, but every sincere emotional beat makes it clear that it admires her methods. McCarthy, at the very least, plays a likable fascist: saddled with awfully clunky material that heaps on crudeness and omits wit, she delivers the lines (and character) as well as can be imagined, and her wasted talents far outstrip Bullock’s comparatively cartoonish insistence on comic mugging. Together, they boast no chemistry whatsoever. That seems to be mostly thanks to Bullock, whose discomfort goes no deeper than her grimace.

Some blame for the half-baked bond between the leads can be heaped on Parks and Recreation writer Katie Dippold. The Heat is her first major screenplay, and its awkward pacing and lack of thematic unity suggest she may have had difficulty adapting from an episodic format. Equally bad is Paul Feig’s direction, which doesn’t seem to know up from down; besides some sins of basic film grammar (e.g. jarring axis jumps), coverage has an irritating tendency to play out almost entirely in close ups, even when the gag demands a wider view to understand the joke. Feig boasts a laudable CV (Arrested Development, Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks), and Dippold’s episodes of Parks and Rec are wonderful; hopefully, this is an itinerant low point in their careers.

All these parts of the movie’s machinery fully malfunction during a crowd scene in a nightclub. The deranged duo push their way through a crowd to find a suspect, a moment that requires intricate blocking, sound, scripting, and performance under complex shooting conditions, and the result is a lifeless and confounding mess where not one choice, be it by the film’s characters or its crew, seems to logically follow the others. The scene just before that is confounding in another way: after a long crane shot establishing the packed club, the duo burst into a bathroom and have a four-minute “sexy up the prude” bit without a single interruption from the hundreds of bladders just outside.

The real problem highlighted by that scene is that Dippold’s screenplay is unwilling to hold itself accountable, logically or ethically. Ashburn and Mullins disobey and humiliate superiors, threaten colleagues and suspects, and generally do as they see fit. The film draws heavily from fellow “fuck the rules” cop farces Hot Fuzz and 21 Jump Street, but doesn’t recognize that it is exactly the kind of movie that its inspirations lampooned: it views its rogue cops as genuinely empowered and heroic (save for one customary gross-out scene involving an unbelievably stupid field surgery, which ends in mild chastisement and then turns out to have been completely irrelevant).

“You shot him in the dick!” cries McCarthy after one tepid action scene, a line blatantly plagiarized from last year’s 21 Jump Street. In The Heat, the joke operates purely on sadism, and omits its source’s self-aware masterstroke: “You shot him in the dick! Who does that?” This time, the punchline is the implicit (though unintended) answer: a fascist. In both films, the buddy cops achieve their fantasy selves by means of ethical squalor. But in 21 Jump Street, the joke is on the fascists. In The Heat, it’s on their victims.

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