When I talk with casual moviegoers about film comedy (and by "casual moviegoer" I mean people who tend to see what's in wide release and not much else; it's okay if that's you), the conversation almost always revolves around this or that popular comic actor, usually the men who've made careers out of play grating, obnoxious, idiotic characters, extreme outsiders bending scenarios to their will. Past and present guilty parties include Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Now you can add Melissa McCarthy to that list. Sort of.
McCarthy's difference lies with her skillfully sharpened take on the extreme outsider, one that usually includes a core of Type-A obsession and innate superiority that drives whoever it is she's playing. Going back to her sweet yet manically perfectionist chef on Gilmore Girls and oddball sketch characters with Los Angeles' Groundlings all the way up to her Bridesmaids role as a hypercompetent and sexually confident weirdo, she's infrequently the victim. The men in this camp are usually buffoonish man-children, the punch lines in the mix; McCarthy, by contrast, is frequently crazed but never crazy. She makes the punch lines.
Here she's a hilariously profane tornado of a cop who's not afraid of anything, even when equally controlling and assertive (yet PG-mouthed) FBI agent Sandra Bullock tries to usurp her authority on an important investigation. Forced by her boss (Demian Bichir) to collaborate, Bullock reluctantly works alongside McCarthy to break the case and Lethal Weapon-ish, mismatched buddy-cop stuff follows.
But even casual moviegoers understand at this point in history that the case itself doesn't matter. It's strictly generic bad guys and guns all the way. In fact, nothing else matters in this film, not the dullish basic cable TV look, not the rote crime plot beats, nothing. You already know this story and it's not the reason you'll buy a ticket. You'll buy a ticket to see the continued ascension of a comic talent grabbing for what's hers. It's a showcase for Bullock and McCarthy, and Bullock has wisely decided to let her costar bounce off the walls, hanging back in a support position more often than not. She's funny, too, but it's not her show.
Unlike Identity Thief, which tried hard to contain and even pity McCarthy's sociopathic criminal character, The Heat allows her to improvise as aggressively as she wants. She's a jolt of nonstop swearing and brusque pushiness, sexual bravado (she dropkicks a string of male suitors begging for her attention) and violently fuming insults directed at Bullock and everyone else who gets in her way. She's as fully and as powerfully in control of her space as Roseanne Barr was in the '80s. She can yank a laugh out of a scene that was probably originally written as sentimental or soft, and if the box office agrees to follow her as she sets fire to what's expected of her then she's only going to get better and weirder. I can't wait to watch that happen. Maybe next time it'll even be in a movie that's as bold as she is.
STAR RATING: 3/5