June 28--Comedy. Starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Directed by Paul Feig. (R. 117 minutes.)
"The Heat" is a good movie and a successful action comedy, and it arrives just in time for Melissa McCarthy. "The Hangover III" and "Identity Thief" cast her in nasty, unfunny versions of the role she played in "Bridesmaids," and as actors inevitably get blamed for their bad material, McCarthy was on the verge of looking like a one-trick pony whose trick wasn't all that funny after all.
"The Heat" removes all doubt -- McCarthy is a big-screen comedian for the long haul. The role is not so different from the confident, mentally skewed, crazily aggressive and slightly delusional women she has been playing in movies recently, but this time the script doesn't leave her to flail and sell bad writing by being broad and pushy. It gives her scenes to act, as well as laugh-out-loud lines and moments. It also gives her Sandra Bullock to play off of, a comedian of equal skill but of completely different style and manner.
The coming attractions trailer did this movie no favors. Often the trailer has all the laughs, but this one left only the impression of another stupid, uninspired formula movie. Actually, "The Heat" is something of a formula comedy, but it's inspired, too -- and the inspiration is in the combining of these two actresses. If this were the old studio days, the producers would force them to make another four or five movies together. As it stands, it would be very surprising if they never co-starred in another movie: The chemistry is too strong.
McCarthy is a battering ram. Her style is to hit a joke as hard and as relentlessly as she can until the audience breaks down and laughs. Bullock's, by contrast, is the comedy of embarrassment, the muttered line underneath the breath, of someone trying to avoid conflict and maintain appearances. So these are comic personae designed to clash -- and the rest is just filling in the blanks, finding the characters and creating the opportunities.
A nice feature of Katie Dippold's script is that the crime story that goes with the comedy isn't bad on its own. Bullock plays Sarah, a know-it-all, ambitious FBI agent who goes to Boston to find a drug kingpin, and McCarthy is Mullins, a plainclothes detective who questions a witness by hitting him with a phone book and forcing him to play Russian roulette. Of course, Sarah and Mullins don't want to work together, but surprisingly, the movie actually gets better when their more blatant clashes are out of the way, and they're getting along while getting on each other's nerves.
The humor is harsh, coarse and very funny, and Paul Feig, who directed "Bridesmaids," once again demonstrates his ability to create an atmosphere of abandon, so that a running joke about a misogynistic albino DEA agent can go right to the line without crossing it. Yet there's work behind the abandon. Feig refines the comic beats and delineates the featured roles so that they're vivid. The bad guys here don't just scowl but have specific points of character.
Here's a mark of how well "The Heat" works, how it never becomes boring: The movie contains a fairly long set-piece, about an hour in, in which the two women get drunk in a bar and then start dancing, and then dancing with other people. They end up sleeping at the bar. In terms of story, the sequence could almost be cut entirely, but it's one of the most delightful things in the movie. That's how at home the audience gradually gets with just watching Bullock and McCarthy being funny together.
Two more things to look for: The Mullins clan, a crazy Boston family, seems partly inspired by the crazy Boston family in David O. Russell's "The Fighter." Those are good ensemble scenes that show Feig's command of a crowd.
Also, on two or three occasions, Sarah's high school yearbook is shown, and the date on it says 1982. That means that Sarah is at least 48 going on 49, which is exactly Bullock's age. Do you think something like that could possibly happen onscreen without a major star's knowledge and approval? Good for Bullock to be playing her own age onscreen and for showing people what 48 looks like, or at least the movie-star version of it.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: email@example.com
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