Thematic Problems in The Heat

The HeatOne of the things I was looking forward to on Thanksgiving was watching The Heat with my family. I didn’t know anything about the film except that it starred Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, both of whom I like. The beginning of it was typical enough. Bullock plays FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn, a very capable person with no people skills at all. Think: Miss Congeniality, but much less likable. I figured she’d learn through the course of the movie to be a decent human being. I was wrong. Soon we meet McCarthy’s character: Boston Police Detective Shannon Mullins. She is quickly established as a woman who has no regard for the law in her pursuit of a man trying to get a prostitute and another who is smoking a joint.

Here’s the thing. Even I can get into a movie like Dirty Harry, because the cop is being an asshole in pursuit of a serial killer. This shtick doesn’t work in a comedy when the “bad guys” are unfaithful husbands and kids getting high. But Mullins is worse than that. There is a whole tiresome back story about how she sent her own brother to prison because he was on drugs. She justifies this to her family by saying, “Well none of you got him off the streets!” That’s really amazing. Prison is probably the worst place to get someone off drugs. For one thing, there are plenty of drugs in prison. But more important, after people have felonies on their records, they don’t have a lot of employment (or many other) choices. So after getting out of jail, her brother is likely to be thrown in with the same people he was with before. And this turns out to be exactly what happens in the movie. (Of course, there is no realization in the film that Mullins “solved” her brother’s problem in the worst way.)

Another extremely repellent aspect of the movie is how it dumps all over FBI interrogation. The FBI has the best system for doing interrogations and they are highly successful. But in our pop culture world where 24 is how real men interrogate, the FBI system is wimpy and ineffective. It depends upon rapport-building and also what’s called tit-for-tat. There is a wonderful example where “one terrorist surrendered valuable information in exchange for a heart transplant for his child.” But in The Heat, being an asshole was always the key. They don’t need no stinking effective negotiation techniques!

The film goes on to have exactly the villain you expect. In terms of the “police story” aspect of the film, it is just a series of cliches from movies, but mostly television shows. And at the very end, the villain acts totally stupidly as though all he wants to do is kill the lead characters and doesn’t need to worry about then being arrested. It also uses the myth that air embolism will kill you. This is injecting air into the blood stream. It will kill you, but it would take about a hundred full syringes of air to do it. Regardless, if you managed to succeed at that, the two cops who had been shot to death in the same room would probably raise red flags.

The ManWhile watching the film, I was reminded of a great comedy The Man with Eugene Levy and Samuel L Jackson. In that film, Jackson plays the McCarthy part: he is really not likable. But instead of teaming him up with a straight laced cop who gets poisoned by his influence, he is teamed up with a sweet, morally heroic dentist. In the end, it is Jackson who learns valuable lessons about life. And this is the fundamental problem with The Heat. The characters start off being unlikable and end up even more so.

This is not to say that the film isn’t funny. McCarthy is funny despite the material. But it isn’t nearly as funny as it would have been if the script had done anything to make me feel that the characters were redeemable. Bullock, on the other hand, was miscast in this film. She puts in a fine performance, but it never seems to gel, and she doesn’t have much to do in the movie other than be outraged and finally won-over by McCarthy.

Look: it would be different if there weren’t real cops acting like they were above the law. But I read about them every day of the week. Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives are destroyed every year by this kind of behavior. So when I see it being held up as an ideal, it gets my back up. Things I would normally find amusing I just bristle at. And that was especially true after the negotiation scene. My advice: rent The Man

Afterword

Of course, The Heat received generally good reviews from the “critics” and did huge box office. The Man was panned by “critics” and did almost nothing at the box office. But I predict that people will quickly forget The Heat. For one thing, how long will it take before people get tired of Melissa McCarthy’s one character act. (Identity Thief was pretty good, but it was exactly the same thing.) For another thing, The Man ages well, and I think it’s silliness will appeal more as people’s preconceived notions about Samuel L Jackson fade away.

Update (5 April 2014 6:01 pm)

I mistakenly wrote above that Eugene Levy’s character in The Man was a dentist. He was actually a dental supply salesman.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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