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Film Review: The Heat

The Heat (2013; Directed by Paul Feig)

It’s a central tenet of feminism that women are as good as men (if not better) and deserve every fair opportunity to demonstrate it. But an equally key feature of the feminist project must be to allow women to be as bad as men and to be treated and understood in equivalent terms. Just as “successful” women are often objectified and victimized by pervasive tropes that proscribe their individual agency and personal integrity, “unsuccessful” women are likewise pigeonholed and limited by distinct (but often related or adapted) stereotypes. Feminism in its ideal form allows women not only the unfettered chance to be at their best that men evidently receive, but also a level of sympathy and regard equivalent to that afforded to men when reduced to their worst.

Comedy director Paul Feig has been doing decent if aesthetically unremarkable yeoman’s (yeowoman’s? yeoperson’s?) work for the image and perception of funny women in Hollywood since at least 2011, when his Judd Apatow-produced women-centric comedy Bridesmaids was a surprise box office smash. Feig had cut his creative teeth on Freaks and Geeks, a critically-acclaimed but little-watched television show from the turn of the millennium that has become, in retrospect, the biggest non-SNL American mainstream comedy incubator of the past 20 years (Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow helped develop it, and current established comedy leads Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segal were among its principal young actors). But it was Bridesmaids that pushed him to the forefront of big-screen comedy.

The Heat is his follow-up to that galvanizing success, and like Bridesmaids it’s more a movie prominently featuring women in screen roles generally occupied by men than it is a specifically feminist movie. That the former is quickly construed as the latter is a telling comment on the popular perception of feminism, but in either case it’s as major a step as Hollywood is able to make at the moment in the representational direction of gender equality, so let’s offer our tempered support as encouragement. The aim of trope conquest is not unlaudable in a form increasingly defined by the demographic fragmentation of genre films. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it’s downright revolutionary: the patriarchy perpetuates itself in low culture as well as on society’s elite echelons, so let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that gender representations in comedy movies don’t mean anything.

Bridesmaids established that the dominant contemporary American comedy milieu of the crude, anarchic, semi-improvised buddy-antics farce could appeal equally well to audiences when inhabited by female characters as opposed to male ones (that Apatow, the Caesar of the American big-screen comedy empire built on such dude-dominated farces, oversaw its expansion to include female leads mustn’t escape our critical notice). The Heat, for its part, integrates women characters into the highly masculine-centric and generally chauvinistic buddy cop genre, a frequently mocked genre that is perhaps the most ideologically revealing and societally troubling type of Hollywood product in light of the expanding police state of post-Reagan America.

The Heat is not a satirical commentary on buddy cop movie tropes the way that Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is, to select one example. It predominantly reproduces the common tropes of the genre and inserts women into them as opposed to men. Therefore, the hyper-competent by-the-book FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock learns to relax, loosen up, and bend the rules and procedures (and, you know, laws) that govern police work by working with the vigorously proletarian street detective played by Melissa McCarthy (the breakout scene-stealer of Bridesmaids) to take down a shadowy, violent drug lord. Feig works in references to obstacles faced by professional women in largely homosocial workplaces everywhere, from the glass ceiling that confronts Bullock’s careerist Sarah Ashburn and denies her a coveted promotion to the derision that McCarthy’s appearance and working-class associations inspire in her male colleagues. But if The Heat is feminist, it is feminist more in general premise than in specific textual detail.

Does it matter whether The Heat is feminist, as long as it’s funny? It is intermittently funny in the scattershot, half-improvised, throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks manner of much American comedy from the Apatow stable. McCarthy overcomes some early obesity humour to carve out her own particular foul-mouthed, fiercely loyal, absurdly self-confident take on the loose-cannon cop archetype. Her Detective Mullins is a motormouthed bulldozer, and if any specific utterance doesn’t flatten you, another is coming along in a moment to try its luck. Bullock is an able foil for her, and is gifted with many of the funnier (likely written) lines. That the same actress is at the centre of this movie and the taut space thriller Gravity in the same year is testament to a rare range and versatility that goes unappreciated. Little of the supporting work is notable, though comic Spoken Reasons has some humourous moments as a low-level street dealer named Rojas who keeps popping up in their investigation.

What The Heat achieves in a wider sense is to inculcate female officers in the consistent process of discursive justification of growing police power and supralegal enforcement activities that cop movies with male protagonists have been carrying out for decades. Mullins is introduced busting a john (Tony Hale) soliciting prostitutes and then pursuing Rojas for drug possession. Both of these crimes, while incontrovertibly illegal, are controversially so in terms of public opinion, but Feig’s movie has no inclination to question the terms of social order (an order that limits the options of the low-income women and minorities disproportionally arrested for those respective offenses) that their enforcement supports.

Like in conservatively-tilted cop movies stretching back to the era of Dirty Harry at least, Mullins and Ashburn show that disregarding all of those limp-spined politically-correct liberal procedures and bothersome criminal laws is the only way to effectively dispense justice to the truly guilty (and the officers always have sole discretion in deciding who that is). Hollywood convention conceives of the rogue cop as the modern symbolic heir to the Old West gunslinger, but both figures have been subaltern foot soldiers in long-standing processes of hegemonic enforcement of discriminatory conditions. The rogue cop figure has provided important populist discursive cover for the increase in police brutality, overreach and militarization in America, a deepening nightmare that the country is only beginning to wake up to.

The Heat does not challenge this structure of representation but merely muscles women into a comparable position as men in buttressing it. It seeks to break up the boys’ club of the patriarchy but not the oppressions that the patriarchy inflicts upon anyone other than white professional women. Although Hot Fuzz reproduces many of the same buddy cop flick tropes as The Heat (their over-the-top satirical titles are even similar), a key distinction can be seen in one of Hot Fuzz‘s underappreciated core ironies. Unlike in The Heat and most other American cop movies, Wright’s satire of the genre utilized the rogue extralegal vigilante police(man) officer in usurping the power of a closed, untouchable conservative social elite, in putting a firm end to the discriminatory enforcement of a restrictive social order of conformity and obedience to authority.

What The Heat does achieve, or work towards achieving, is the above-defined feminist project of gender equality on its lower registers. It allows that women can be as crude, violent, and loud-mouthed as men without incurring special discrimination, and that they can also be pocket-fascist assholes with guns and badges with every bit as much alacrity. It might also give clues to Feig’s forthcoming, sure-to-be-contentious all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which will no doubt take on the stubbornly patriarchal geek culture just as his earlier work tackled gross-out farces with hearts of gold and buddy cop action-comedies.

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