ROMP, WITH EXPLOSIONS
The Heat (MA15+) ★★★ ✩ National release Cloudburst (MA15+) ★★★ ✩ Selected cinemas in Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth; other cities later
HOLLYWOOD’S new buddy cop comedy, The Heat, is being billed as something completely different. So I went along with eager expectations, alert for signs of freshness and novelty. And what do we get? Two chalk-and-cheese cops who can’t stand each other, the usual bloody shootouts, plenty of foul language, a quota of sadistic violence, a touch of slapstick, an elusive mobster and, believe it or not, a car chase. It sounds very much like every other Hollywood buddy cop movie we know and love, but for one difference — the buddy cops in The Heat are female, and the film is being hailed as another milestone in the Hollywood gender wars.
The result may not be exactly a comic masterpiece, but it’s certainly one of the funniest movies of the year. And what makes it funny is not so much the sex of the characters but the brashness and zest of the performances. With minimal variations, Katie Dippold’s screenplay might have worked just as well if the buddy cops were blokes. New York FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is assigned to work with freewheeling Boston cop Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) in cracking a vicious drug ring, and there’s an assumption on the part of the filmmakers that the mere sight of female cops toting guns and roughing it with bad guys is pretty funny in itself. But Sarah and Shannon aren’t really shown as ‘‘ girl’’ cops at all: they’re cops who just happen to be women. Sarah is uptight, hard-nosed, super-efficient, as career-minded as any of her male colleagues. Shannon is tough, brutal, fearless and accustomed to getting her way in male company with tirades of abuse. If there’s a gender stereotype being broken it’s the polite (and long discredited) notion that women are the gentler sex.
The director is Paul Feig, who worked with McCarthy on the 2011 comedy hit Bridesmaids. And once again he’s well served by his cast. The Heat is a fairly predictable cop thriller that owes everything to the zest of its leading players. In appearance they conform to the standard comedy-duo requirement that has ruled in Hollywood since the days of Laurel and Hardy. Take one straight guy and one fall guy — preferably one fat guy and one skinny. If you can’t have a white buddy and a black buddy (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon), you can have one smart guy and one nerd ( Beverly Hills Cop), one deskbound pencil-pusher and one freewheeling action specialist ( The Other Guys), one lazy slacker and one conscientious stickler for the rules ( Starsky & Hutch) and, if all else fails, one human and one canine ( Turner & Hooch).
The buddy cop genre had its heyday in the 1980s — a reaction, I think, to the realism of the Godfather films. Audiences sated with stories of corruption and betrayal wanted some light relief. And perhaps they still do. If The Heat teaches us anything it is that the buddy cop formula — whatever the sex of the protagonists — hasn’t changed in 30 years. It’s a romp with well-timed explosions.
None of this is meant as a criticism of Bullock or McCarthy. They’re in great form, and all the funnier because of their contrasting styles — McCarthy joyously over the top, as ever, Bullock delightfully and subtly under- stated. McCarthy’s character, Shannon, has a reverence for firearms that should make her a pin-up for the National Rifle Association. A secret compartment in her home is stocked with handguns, bazookas and flamethrowers, and in her funniest scene she subjects one nasty character to a game of Russian roulette.
As for Sarah, we almost feel sorry for her. She seeks companionship with her neighbour’s cat, and it turns out she was reared by a succession of foster parents. Funny? Only when we contrast her natural passivity with her outbursts of frantic energy. Sarah has been trained as a precision driver, and in her big car chase scene she could just as easily be piloting that runaway bus in Speed.
There’s a weird moment when she uses a kitchen knife and a drinking straw to perform emergency throat surgery on a restaurant patron with something stuck in his throat. Not all the bloodthirsty touches in The Heat are the result of villains being blasted with grenades or having their private parts
shot up at close range. I guess that’s progress.
The inevitable bonding process takes a while to develop, but it’s an essential part of the formula. That drunken dance routine, when the girls perform together in a sleazy nightclub, is the emotional turning point of the movie. I like the way Sarah’s language, prissy and correct at first, soon descends to the same gutter level as Shannon’s. Those who enjoyed the old buddy cop movies will find nothing in
The Heat to disappoint them. It ticks all the boxes. And it would be a duller film without Bullock and McCarthy. For much of the time it’s a two-hander. These bickering, brawling girls are all we see and hear. And they’re pretty much all we need.
CLOUDBURST is a low-budget Canadian feature written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald and, according to the film’s distributors, it has won 30 best-picture awards and enjoyed sell-out screenings at film festivals across the world. I’ll take that on trust.
Olympia Dukakis is Stella, a bullying, illtempered, foul-mouthed old woman who I think we are meant to like in the same way that we are meant to like Melissa McCarthy’s character in The Heat. She’s one of those awful, irrepressible characters that filmmakers like to inflict on us.
Stella and her partner Dottie (Brenda Fricker) have lived in a loving lesbian relationship for more than 30 years. But their shared happiness is about to end. Dottie is sick and legally blind, and her granddaughter, very sensibly, wants to put her into an aged-care home where she’ll be looked after properly. But Stella will have none of it. She rips up the court order authorising Dottie’s removal, abducts her from the home where she’s been forcibly confined and takes her back to the little house they share on the coast of Maine. And because there’s a lot of driving in cars,
Cloudburst can be called a road movie. The last road movie I remember with two female leads was Thelma & Louise, hailed in its day as a feminist milestone because Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis had no trouble outwitting some ugly male adversaries. But they weren’t lesbian (certainly not in those days), so
Cloudburst may stand as the first comic lesbian road movie in cinema history. Bully for Canada and Thom Fitzgerald! The film’s tone, though profoundly compassionate, is agreeably lighthearted. For those wondering about the appropriate collective noun for Stella, Dottie and others of like persuasion, Stella comes up with a gaggle of gays and flock of lesbians. I think that’s meant as a joke.
Fitzgerald’s screenplay, an adroit blend of warmth and humour, probes deeper layers of insight as the story unfolds. Stella decides the best way to safeguard her relationship with Dottie is to marry her. With some reluctance Dottie agrees (‘‘I don’t believe in marriage’’), and the pair set off in their little ute to drive from Maine across the border into Canada, where same-sex marriages are legal. On the road they pick up Prentice (Ryan Doucette), a young hitchhiker on his way to see his dying mother. Prentice is another character with hidden depths — drifter, deadbeat and a trained dancer who likes giving unbidden performances. He is the film’s anchoring presence — sane, kindly, brave, resourceful and happy to go along with Stella’s plans. If there is such a thing as best man at a lesbian wedding, Prentice is ready with his services. After a bureaucratic hitch or two — which of the women is to be designated the spinster on the marriage form and which the bachelor? — the wedding is ready to go.
But as we are soon reminded, nothing is ever plain sailing in the best romantic comedies. The performances are beautifully accomplished and the minor roles — Prentice’s mum, her mad husband, the irascible granddaughter, a local cop — add sparkle and diversity to the story. Only later did it occur to me that Stella and Dottie’s journey might have been unnecessary. According to my researches, same-sex marriage was legalised in Maine in 2009, a decision overturned in a referendum but later reinstated by law and effective from December last year. So Cloudburst is a little dated. But if Fitzgerald had waited longer to make it, Stella and Dottie wouldn’t have had to travel to Canada. Then we wouldn’t have had a road movie — perhaps no movie at all. And what a shame that would have been.
Olivia Dukakis and Ryan Doucette on the road in Cloudburst, left; and Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as a pair of cops in The Heat, above