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The Heat (2013)

Missed Congeniality

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist.

--Kevin Spacey (after Baudelaire), The Usual Suspects

I'm used to being the last guy anyone asks for opinions on movies, but today may take that tradition to new depths of incredulity for you, my dear reader. Keep in mind that I'm one of only a handful of sad, humor-free idiots who found 2011's blockbuster comedy Bridesmaids not only unfunny but terribly insulting to women. This stance has led to more arguments than I care to admit, and director Paul Feig's follow-up, The Heat, can only lead to even more bloody noses and hurt feelings. This is one of the ugliest, most distasteful movies I've ever had to sit through--and I saw White Chicks on opening weekend.

The fact that I watched this in an auditorium packed with people literally shaking to catch their breath from laughter for nearly two hours is proof that I should speed up my plans to head for the mountains, before the tide of mouth-breathing scum who find this noxious nonsense funny overruns America like the zombie horde from World War Z.

There's no point in rehashing the plot, of which there is simultaneously too much and not enough to sustain a feature film in 2013. But here goes: Buttoned-up FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) must team with slovenly, aggressive Boston cop Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) to stop a drug lord whom no one has ever seen. Solving this case will all but guarantee her promotion to field director (or something).

Will Mullins' unconventional methods and gruff demeanor eventually wear down Ashburn's by-the-book, bad-language-free personality? Will Ashburn's adherence to professionalism teach Mullins that drawing guns on citizens and beating suspects to a pulp isn't the best way to do police work? Will the drug lord turn out to be a background player who's been right in front of us the whole time?

If you are like (or actually are) one of the dozens of people I heard reacting in surprise last night at any of The Heat's decades-old developments, please stop reading this site right now.

I'm serious. Leave.

Katie Dippold's screenplay is entirely unoriginal. Not all buddy-cop movies have to be groundbreaking, but they must have something else to offer--like lead chemistry, humor, or at least a basis in reality--otherwise, we're dealing with a farce, like The Naked Gun series. The Heat takes place in a version of the real world in which the brutish Mullins is able to trample the law in pursuit of it, and has somehow been deemed a really effective cop. Given her harassment of suspects, wanton destruction of property, and utter disregard for authority, it's truly unbelievable that she'd still be employed by, well, anyone.

Sure, it's a genre trope that the "cop on the edge" destroys a lot of things and is emotionally unstable, but when the character is as unlikable from frame one as Mullins is, it's hard not to ask questions amid the alleged escapism. Ashburn is no chamer, either, and Bullock's portrayal of her (as dictated by the script) is one of such pill-like tight-assedness as to be an unflattering caricature of women in corporate America.

Which leads me to my underlying problem with The Heat: it hates women almost as much as it hates men.

"But, Ian, this is a big-budget empowerment fantasy starring women and written by a woman! How on Earth could it be misogynist?"

The answer is, "all too easily". Like Bridesmaids, The Heat has a narrow prism through which it views women: they're either buzz-killing sourpusses, prostitutes, nags, or graceless, obnoxious pigs. Sarah Ashburn lives alone and spends her precious little downtime watching TV and cuddling with her neighbor's cat. Mullins yells at everyone she encounters, bed hops with bar strange, and has apparently never seen a pair of pajamas before (referring to Ashburn's as a "night tuxedo"). There is not a single positive portrayal of women in this movie. In fact, if you look at the personnel in the FBI and Boston PD headquarters, you'll be hard-pressed to find any women working there who aren't named Ashburn and Mullins.

The male "good guys" are beleaguered working stiffs who don't understand why the one chick in each office can't just act like a normal professional. But they're so worn down by years of persistent rules-quoting and belligerence that they've given up trying to make a difference. The exception is an FBI agent named Levy (Marlon Wayans, fittingly, the star of White Chicks; ironically, the best thing in this movie), who develops a crush on Ashburn; in the film's final moments, Mullins contorts her new best friend into a sexy pose while on a hospital stretcher, in the hopes of making her a more appealing candidate for mating. Don't let the participants fool you for a second: The Heat is a textbook anti-feminist fantasy designed to table social and workplace equality for the foreseeable future.

The movie might have had a chance, if Dippold had invested her characters with any semblance of recognizable personality or humor that didn't come from the wastebasket of The Hangover's writers' room. Drinking montages; obnoxiously loud "Baaah-ston" family members; and repeatedly shouting "Fuck!" do not, on their face, constitute comedy or create character. It's sad to say, but the recent (and puzzlingly successful) attempts at making big, female-targeted comedies have all been based on appropriating the worst qualities of "guy" movies. One could argue that shooting a drug lord twice in the dick amounts to both comedy and female empowerment; one might also call that pandering to an audience who's dumb enough to believe that.

It's disturbing how much misplaced emphasis The Heat places on gender. The implication is that these two women must work doubly hard to make it in a man's world. But the film presents them with no male-based roadblocks to success. If Ashburn weren't constantly trying to smash through a glass ceiling that she'd apparently installed herself, and if Mullins had developed past the toddler stage of social norms, I have no doubt their male peers would be happy to work with them to solve cases.

Throughout the film, I kept flashing back to an eerily similar Sandra Bullock movie, Miss Congeniality, in which she plays an uptight federal agent who must go undercover in a beauty pageant to crack a big crime. That film humanized its protagonist by exposing a multi-faceted vulnerability and, in the process, really saying something about the objectification of women in American society. That film had heart and brains, and didn't need to drop a single "F-bomb" or degrade its characters in order to be funny. That may seem quaint in the era of explosive-diarrhea jokes and fat-woman-squeezing-out-of-cars gags, but it lights my fire in more ways than the lazy assholes behind The Heat ever could.

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