It's not easy for directors to develop a distinctive style in comedy, a genre that's almost always more about the dialogue and the actors than the camera that captures them. But Paul Feig may be joining his pal Judd Aaptow as a rare modern exception. Feig, creator of those lovable outsiders of Freaks and Geeks, has an unflagging soft spot for the underdog, but he's also never afraid to watch them lose, over and over again, before they achieve some small victory. He's said that on Freaks and Geeks the network begged him to allow the characters to win more often, but even when he complied, the win was bittersweet. In his giant hit Bridesmaids, we watch Kristen Wiig's Annie flail for hours, destroying relationships and acting out; her victory in the end is more like survival.
And now we have The Heat, a classic buddy cop movie that succeeds by committing wonderfully to its broken characters. The surface differences between Sandra Bullock's Ashburn (a by-the-book FBI expert) and Melissa McCarthy's Mullins (a brash Boston detective) are less important than the fact that they're both, frankly, assholes. Ashburn gloats about her superior skills to anyone win earshot's, Mullins threatens and swears to get her way; both are variations on the righteous jerks familiar from other cop movies, and they'll need to learn to work together and help each other change, as dozens of other buddy cops have done before them.
The difference in The Heat isn't so much that they're female-- though some scenes take great advantage of the gender switch-- but that these characters are genuinely damaged, and Feig feels comfortable really digging into them without ever devolving into pity. When we first see Ashburn in her lonely apartment she's cradling a cat… which we soon realize she's swiped from her neighbor. When Mullins storms into her precinct and wants to know where her perp is, she's not just tossing off random swear words-- she's mean. We like these characters because they're played by the infinitely likable Bullock and McCarthy, but also because Feig believes in them so much. The genre tells us that the two will eventually become friends and crack the case, but The Heat makes it look like real challenge to get there.
Thankfully the script by Katie Dippold lays out the most simple possible plot to throw these two together. Ashburn is assigned to break up a Boston drug ring, and the perp brought in by Mullins is the key first step to getting there. Mullins, a native of the rough neighborhood whose brother (Michael Rappaport) is recently out of the drug game, essentially forces Ashburn to team up with them, and the two learn to lean on each other while facing all kinds of hurdles, from two snotty DEA agents on the same case (Taran Killam and Michael McDonald) to Mullins's nutty family (featuring, amazingly, former New Kid On The Block Joey McIntyre and Jane Curtin) to the drug dealers themselves. Marlon Wayans has a tiny role as a fellow FBI agent with a crush on Ashburn, and Thomas F. Wilson gets in a few good scenes as Mullins's Captain, as beaten down by her foul mouth as everyone else around her.
With all that affection for this characters Feig has trouble, just like he did in Bridesmaids, with keeping the film at a solid pace; some scenes go on too long, some jokes fizzle out before they're over, and as fun as Ashburn and Mullins' night of drunken bonding is, it probably overstays its welcome. Sometimes even a plot this simple manages to bog down scenes with exposition, and the reveal at the end of the true bad guy is more of a head-scratcher than a surprise. But every scene, even the weak and too-long ones, has at least one great joke in it, or a great physical gag from Bullock or McCarthy, or just an energy that makes it so much fun to spend time with these weirdos. In its best moments The Heat is like McCarthy's standout scene in Bridesmaids, when she confronts Kristen Wiig and shouts "You're an asshole, Annie!" Except this time it's two assholes who need intervention-- another pair of fascinating freaks (or geeks) whom only the generous Feig could make this funny.