not in our stars, but in ourselves
9/52: A female-led movie
Tomorrow (or, depending on how long it takes me to write this and/or where you are in the world, today) is the first day of Women’s History Month. It is, therefore, a great time to revisit one of my favorite buddy-cop comedies, The Heat. It follows the classic formula for the genre – an odd-couple pairing of law enforcement professionals, begrudgingly working together to defeat crime, and eventually coming to appreciate how well they work together because of their differences – but get this: they’re WOMEN!
In the New York City field office of the F.B.I., Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is known to be great at her job – but not especially well-liked by any of her co-workers. She catches a case (or however it works in the F.B.I.) that brings her up to Boston: an as-yet-unseen drug lord, Simon Larkin, is mutilating other dealers on his turf. Ashburn follows a lead involving a relatively low-level dealer, freshly collared by Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). There is friction immediately: Ashburn is fastidious, precise, by-the-book, logical; Mullins is messy, expansive, reckless, intuitive. Nevertheless, Ashburn is forced to work with Mullins, who knows the area and the people better than anyone, and the two form an uneasy partnership. After they track down and bug one of Larkin’s lieutenants, two D.E.A. agents raise a federal stink. It seems that they’d been trying to track down Larkin for ages, and don’t appreciate their case being compromised all of a sudden – and especially not by a couple of women. Ashburn’s supervisor eventually gives in to D.E.A. pressure and orders her and Mullins off the case – but of course, now it’s personal. Mullins’s brother has managed to get mixed up in Larkin’s network, and Larkin is threatening her family. Despite being ordered off the case, Ashburn and Mullins reunite – and they bring the heat.
The most common test for a feminist-leaning film critics is known as the Bechdel Test. To pass, a movie must contain at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man. Now, this shouldn’t be so much to ask, but it’s slightly horrifying how many films fail the test. The Heat passes, with flying colors. Not only do we have the fantastic leads, Ashburn and Mullins, we have plenty of supporting ladies as well – almost none of whom talk about men amongst themselves. There’s Tatiana (Kaitlin Olson), a Bulgarian druggie who lives in the same apartment building as Mullins; there are Gina (Jessica Chaffin) and Beth (Jamie Denbo), the girlfriend of one of Mullins’s brothers and that girlfriend’s best friend, who spend most of their time threatening to kill people and complaining about others being “wicked rude”; and there’s Mrs. Mullins (Jane Curtin), Mullins’s aggressive mama bear who hasn’t quite forgiven her only daughter for putting her own flesh and blood in prison.
And as colorful and varied as these side characters are, they’re nothing compared to Mullins and Ashburn themselves. Neither of them conforms to any of the usual depressing cliches about women in comedies. They aren’t desperate for a man. They aren’t immaculately dressed and coiffed. They don’t care that they aren’t immaculately dressed and coiffed, even. When other (male) characters insult their appearance, they shoot right back. For example, when one of the D.E.A. agents (who happens to be albino) insults Ashburn’s attire and appearance (“hey, nice short shorts – might wanna try shaving above the leg next time!”), Mullins leaps to her partner’s defense: “You’re giving her beauty advice? Do you even own a fuckin’ mirror?” Girls standing up for girls! Nice!
Really, though, this movie follows the traditions of the buddy-cop film all the way through; since the buddy-cop comedy is most often a male genre, The Heat wastes no time on ridiculous patriarchally imposed “female” tropes. These are just a couple of screwy human beings – as is usually the case with buddy cops – who happen to be female. Are Ashburn and Mullins so much more interesting as characters because they were both written by a woman (Katie Dippold)? Maybe. Interesting. Food for thought right there, I’d say. Anyway, these aren’t two lovelorn ladies. Ashburn, it is implied, does not date much, but (a) she was married and found that her husband, and most men, simply don’t understand what her job takes; and (b) she is very clearly the object of her Boston field office colleague’s eye. And Mullins, for her part, despite being fat and sloppily dressed, can’t keep men away from her. She has about 365 one-night stands a year, it seems, and she finds it difficult to keep them away from her after.
That brings me to one of my favorite, most subversive things about The Heat: not only do the women kick ass and take names, the men are relegated to the same status and dimensionality as women in most buddy-cop films. I mean that men, in this film, are usually obstacles, problems, annoyances, or simply eye candy (Ashburn’s field office colleague, Special Agent Levy – played surprisingly straight by Marlon Wayans). I am not such a misandrist that I think all movies should cast men down to the lowly, one-dimensional realm occupied by so many women in so many male-driven vehicles; in fact, for the record, I’d like to say I’m not a misandrist at all, just a feminist who loves men and fucking hates the patriarchy. But here, it’s a nice touch.
The Heat does touch briefly on how difficult it is for women in law enforcement, especially when those women are as brilliant and driven (in two very different ways) as Mullins and Ashburn. Men find them intimidating, and try to block them at every turn. I’m glad that the movie doesn’t spend too much time on this, because a woe-is-me tone would have been utterly contrary to the spirit of the thing (which is, in case I haven’t made this clear, hilarious), but it does all remind me of this from Mohadesa Najumi: “The woman who doesn’t need validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.” Mmmmmmmmmm hmm.
Finally, I would like to comment on the setting: Boston! My town! Well, sort of. Most of the action takes place in East Boston, which I’m not all that familiar with. Specific settings are a little bit unclear, at times, and I think a writer more familiar with the area would probably have gotten those neighborhood details slightly clearer. Additionally, while I know that director Paul Feig loves Boston, I doubt he knows much outside the “nice” parts of town. Eastie isn’t all that tourist-friendly, per se, so here it sort of feels like a generic crummy inner-city dump. That is my one criticism of the film, however; and even at that, they do such a great job with the extended Mullins family that I don’t mind all that much. That’s what families are like around here, believe me. I’m from one myself.