“I haven’t any decisions yet.” FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) looks dismayed, a little like a puppy left waiting for a treat. She and her boss, Hale (Demián Bichir), are standing in an office, surrounded by desks and cubicle walls. As she waits, he goes on to enumerate his reasons for hesitating on her promotion, namely, that agents under her supervision have complained about her “arrogance, competitiveness, and showmanship,” all traits you’ve just seen on vivid display in a previous scene. Again, Ashburn looks about to protest, to make her case, but before she can, her boss shifts the conversation to her next assignment. She sighs and nods and with that, the basic business of The Heat begins.
That business is what you expect. The utterly straightlaced, uptight Ashburn goes on to her next assignment, tracking down a particular bad guy and partnered against her will with a seasoned Boston detective, Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). Because Ashburn is so desperate to get her promotion, she goes along with all manner of indignities and discomforts, all premised on her opposite-ness from Mullins.
Where Ashburn needs to loosen up, learn to follow her instincts and take risks, Mullins—introduced as she unleashes a nimble slurry of swear words—needs lessons in following procedure, working with others, and making plans. Yes, the girls are perfect for each other, and yes, they will go on in the movie to get drunk, bond, and, some more stuff, until they’re united as ass-kicking sisters who have badges and guns and each other’s backs.
Because they’re girls, The Heat proposes, Ashburn and Mullins’ trajectory is a challenge to movie conventions. This is the formula wielded by Bridesmaids, McCarthy and director Paul Feig’s previous collaboration. It’s a formula that passes for transgressive, but it’s a formula that is also deeply, disappointingly conservative. Here again, girls do what boys usually do in movies. They argue and call each other names, they crash cars and go undercover, they break rules in order to achieve the ends that their bosses actually want achieved. That they do all this against a backdrop of incompetent colleagues, slow-moving bureaucracies, and cartoonish criminals, ensures that their bad behaviors look relatively good.
The moral framework is always the same in this formula, which allows viewers to feel aligned with the outrageous character, in this case, especially, the foul-mouthed, aggressive, reckless Mullins, and entertained when she beats up on her captain or throws phonebooks at suspects or threatens Ashburn. The film refits scenes from other movies, for instance, the girls in the bathroom scene (here Mullins remakes Ashburn by cutting up her insurance salesperson’s suit to make shorts and show cleavage), or the visit home to meet the parents (in this case, Ashburn sits primly before a pack of Mullins’ broadly grotesque brothers and parents, mom played by Jane Curtin, whose swearing here is presented as a joke in and of itself), to repeat the ideas you know already, that is, Ashburn is good at improvising when she has to be, however awkwardly and stupidly, and Mullins is a product of her bombastic background.
The girls, posited as other here, a position that makes their effort s to be same seem somehow righteous. They’re also framed by other others, Bechir’s Hale, another FBI agent, Levy, played by Marlon Wayans, and a pest of a DEA agent (Dan Bakkedahl) whom Mullins derides mercilessly because he’s an idiot and also because he’s albino. This simple framework assumes you’re along for the ride because you know what’s come before, and so doesn’t bother to fill in details, complicate relationships, or say much about how formula works as such.
This is too bad, because it’s possible to interrogate formula by using it, and also to question assumptions rather than reaffirming them in that process. That The Heat doesn’t bother to do any of this underlines its repetition as repetition, its lack of imagination. Much like Ashburn’s banal straight man of a boss, it’s not making decisions so much as it’s following protocol, reasserting what you already know.