By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The first time I saw Sandra Bullock in a movie she was a creamy-skinned second banana — the girl River Phoenix wasn’t interested in. “The Thing Called Love,” which follows some aspiring singers in Nashville, was a flop. What little reputation it has is mostly for being Phoenix’s last picture show, before he overdosed in front of Johnny Depp’s club, the Viper Room.
Bullock’s character was meant to be a little plump, a little dense (at least, compared to the designated leading lady, Samantha Morton). Turns out Bullock was neither, as she quickly showed in ”Speed,” “While You Were Sleeping” and at least a dozen other hits.
Then, after playing role after role that both incorporated and ignored her fabulous femininity, she finally won an Oscar for her turn as the feisty Southern wife devoted to football and her relationship with the hulking ghetto teen she rescued from the streets.
That it’s a true story helps a lot.
Anyway, the movie I mean to be writing about is “The Heat.” You’ve seen this movie before — a hundred times before — whether it was called “48 Hours” or “Men in Black” or “The Other Guys.”
However, in “The Heat,” the “guys” are “gals.” Namely Bullock and the immensely popular Melissa McCarthy. And they do what the guys do in their Buddy Flicks: bicker, battle, then bond for All Time.
Plus, as is often true of Buddy Flicks, the stars play law enforcement agents. Bullock is a Miss Priss FBI agent whose devotion to duty has won her no friends among her colleagues (See “Miss Congeniality”). McCarthy is a slovenly, foulmouthed Boston cop (see any of her previous movies) whose “Dirty Harry” doggedness and disregard for rules (to say nothing of her personal hygiene) hasn’t made her Miss Popularity either.
The two collide over a case involving a very Big Deal Drug Dealer. Hilarity ensues. So does much vulgarity. And a scene or two that has more in common, say, with “Pulp Fiction” than “Rush Hour.”
If you didn’t like watching what happened to Uma Thurman, you need to take a bathroom break when a customer starts choking at a diner.
And even that bit, in its way, is hilarious. I mean it. This is not only one of the funniest movies of the year; it’s one of the funniest movies of the last five years.
On some level (and on its own terms), “The Heat” is as seminal a film as “Thelma and Louise.” It does not end tragically — or transcendently…. take your choice. But it does mean business, whether the business is funny business or not.
Essentially, “The Heat” follows in established male traditions: the fat/thin pairing of Laurel and Hardy, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, even Belushi and Akroyd. Plus, there’s classic prim/slovenly opposites-attract that found its roots in Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple,” and has continued through, say, “Lethal Weapon’s” Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. And beyond.
Granted, “The Heat” goes through the expected buddy-movie tropes, but Bullock and McCarthy manage to make it all fresh.
May I commend Bullock for insisting on reminding us of the clown’s heart that beats inside her considerable beauty? And I’d like to offer this thought: the Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley line of live-fast-die-young bulky comic actors may have a new incarnation in McCarthy. But from what I’ve seen, I’ll bet she sticks to the live fast (and funny) half.