In <i>The Heat</i>, Two Women Actually Talk to Each Other About Something Other Than Men

06/28/2013 10:31 AM |

The Heat Sandra Bullock Melissa McCarthy movie

Here’s a pull-quote for The Heat: the only big summer movie that passes the Bechdel Test! The now-famous (or at least Internet-famous) test, so named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, requires that a movie feature (a) two female characters who (b) talk to each other about (c) something other than a man. Combing through the crop of wide-release summer movies so far, those that might pass the test seem like technicalities: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) chat a little bit about science in Iron Man 3 (in between Tony Stark gossip, at least); Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez have a knock-down drag-out fistfight, which is sort of the summer equivalent of a conversation, in Furious 6; and that’s just about it—until The Heat, which stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as mismatched buddy cops like the male-dominated action comedies of yore (or, you know, right now: The Heat opens opposite White House Down, a more traditional-looking buddy-action picture with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum).

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Will, I wonder, the most fervent (and, I grant, possibly theoretical) Bechdel Test adherents flock to The Heat? In its worst uses, the test functions as ammunition for dismissal, and almost any broad comedy (to say nothing of broad comedies about broads) is easy to dismiss by a certain sub-segment of the smart set. The test’s intended function (or at least its legitimate use) is as a conversation starter, but it’s worth noting that in the original comic strip where it appeared (adapted from Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace), it’s presented as an actual hard metric; the lady in the comic “won’t” go see a movie that doesn’t meet those standards. As a feminist, I find those (seemingly simple, actually distressingly difficult) criteria instructive. As a film critic, I find them limiting bordering on myopic: for one thing, “two women talking to each other about something other than a man” sounds, on paper, a lot more like a play than a movie, and that’s before you even reach the notion that a movie must be pre-checked for these qualities (how does the character in the comics know whether a movie starring both men and women contains two women talking to each other about non-men? Did she get the word that Iron Man 3 was safe, albeit just barely? I am worried about how Bechdel and/or Liz Wallace and/or their fictionalized selves make these decisions!).

I’m taking the test too literally, of course. But taken literally or symbolically, The Heat passes in a big way. It definitely has two female characters: Mullins (McCarthy) is a rough-hewn Boston cop with a messy apartment and a foul mouth; Washburn (Bullock) is an uptight, all-business FBI agent. And boy, do they ever talk. Sometimes it’s about a man, insofar as they both want to track down a mysterious drug lord called Larkin (the screenplay by Katie Dippold has a way with names that sound so co-movie that they almost wink), but the movie overflows with dialogue, written and performed with that modern comedy rhythm that sounds conversational and improvised even when it’s not. McCarthy is a master at this kind of off-the-cuff lunacy, equally comfortable rattling off elaborate threats of violence (she specifies that she will enter the home of a fellow officer “through the front door” before killing him in his sleep) and low-key character-filling details, like her casual assessment of the arsenal she keeps in her fridge. Because of her build, McCarthy will probably garner comparisons to larger comics like John Belushi or Chris Farley, but her free-associative verbal and delivery skills actually bring to mind Will Ferrell (and The Heat, like the Ferrell/Adam McKay comedies, includes a riotous dinner-table sideshow, this one featuring Mullins’ estranged Bahston brood).

McCarthy also recalls Zach Galifianakis (who she was briefly paired with in The Hangover Part III) in that she’s so idiosyncratic and naturally funny that she can be used by lazy filmmakers to prop up comedy with LOL-so-random non-sequiturs. That was certainly the case for her previous vehicle, Identity Thief, but Heat director Paul Feig keeps the comic tone grounded even when McCarthy monologues with clear freedom. Yes, despite two female leads, a solo female screenwriter, and male love interests so downplayed they’re either marginalized (Marlon Wayans, charming and low-key, looks at Bullock admiringly) or turned into a running joke (Mullins keeps running into needy one-night stands from her past), The Heat, being nominally an action-comedy, must be directed by a dude.