Dud of the week: The Heat reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White

Pity Sandra Bullock rehashing her straight-laced shtick from many years and one Oscar ago as FBI agent Ashburn in The Heat. Instead of graduating to mature, sophisticated comic fare, the likable Bullock falls victim to Hollywood’s box-office sexism, the New McCarthyism.

Bullock’s desperate, unfunny routines in The Heat (as an G-Woman no one likes) seem designed just to keep up with Melissa McCarthy who plays Mullins, a slovenly, irascible Boston cop who becomes Ashburn‘s partner. McCarthy has displaced Bullock as Hollywood’s commedienne du jour, representing unladylike wackiness. Among today’s immature/frat-boy comedies, McCarthy rolls and tumbles like one of the douche-bags. Her cultural advance (and Oscar nomination) proves that girls can be gross, too. So, in The Heat’s buddy-comedy formula, Bullock must also humiliate herself.

But in comedy performers need to be funny–or charming, as Bullock was when she first won over audiences in those 90s films that help popularize the rom-com. McCarthy’s humor deliberately lacks charm; laughing at her vulgar, belligerent roles becomes a self-defense reflex. Director Paul Feig, responsible for the distasteful Bridesmaids, perpetrates another crude version of Sisterhood by pairing Bullock with McCarthy as female opposites (one a former foster child, the other from a low-class Southie brood) on a drugs and serial killer case. They develop implausible camaraderie despite their different temperaments. Like Superbad, The Heat is another spin-off from that Freaks and Geeks TV series where Feig got his start; it combines adolescent girl’s locker room personality clash with sitcom-level characters and action-movie brutality (shootings, stabbings even castration).

If film culture retains anything like what used to be called “women’s pictures,” Feig is not its new George Cukor. His Freaks-and-Geekiness turns rom-com into slob-com. (Ashburn’s flirtation with a fellow agent played by Marlon Wayans was left on the Avid hard drive.) Hollywood has freed actresses (or “actors” as they say at the SAG Awards) from conventional femininity. All sensitivity is reduced to fatuous gags and fat jokes–such as exposing the trim Bullock wearing Spanks.

Feig has recently pretended to be McCarthy’s public champion yet here is how he presents his plus-size female paragon in The Heat’s New McCarthysim: 1) McCarthy squeezes through police car windows after a tight fit in a parking lot. 2) McCarthy climbs a cyclone fence while chasing a suspect, then falls like a sack of crap. 3) When McCarthy pulls a gun on her, Bullock screams “What are you an animal!” 4) An exasperated merchant shouts at McCarthy in broken-English: “Get out bull-in-china-shop!” 5) A crook tells McCarthy “You look like one of the Campbell Soup kids who grew up and became an alcoholic.” 6) When dressed in bullet-proof gear, McCarthy is told “You look like a Ninja Turtle.”

Pity Melissa McCarthy whose career is now based on these typically unpleasant bits. They evoke last Spring’s flap over Rex Reed’s review of the wretched Identity Thief. Nothing Reed wrote about McCarthy is as offensive as Feig’s fake feminist McCarthyism in The Heat. During the crime investigation, she’s twice mistaken for male drunks and Bullock does a “mental instability” monologue to “defend” her. McCarthy is a gifted actress who went unknown prior to the vulgarity of Bridesmaids (I first noted her talent in the little-seen film The Nines). Yet, her clown antics offer herself up to ridicule because that’s all Hollywood sees. Reed was not wrong or cruel. Being an overweight buffoon is how McCarthy presents herself (and a critic who suffers through her shtick should be allowed the right to say so without being thought cruel.) Feig doesn’t have the compassion or wit to provide McCarthy with her own Shallow Hal. Always casting McCarthy as slatternly or a lunatic exposes Hollywood’s real body issues.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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