I loved Miss Congeniality even with the secretly awful “I can be a feminist and love beauty pageants!” storyline and the makeover in which the shlubby FBI agent turns into a stone-cold babe. Chalk it up to the appeal of Sandra Bullock, madcap writing, and the supporting cast (Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, and Candice Bergen as the fussy cum psychotic pageant-show director). But after reading Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Feminism it got harder to watch, as it told women, “It’s okay not to be a feminist! It’s okay to want to be pretty and have girlfriends instead! Once you get rid of your frizzy hair and scary eyebrows, that superhot guy will like you!”

The Heat may not be perfect, but it dumps everything that’s objectionable about that earlier film and offers something slyly feminist while still feeling unthreatening.

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Taking into account that this film will win no prizes, I kind of loved it — and even better, it feels like the kind of movie I’ll keep enjoying when it makes its inevitable appearance on basic cable in 9 months or so. The writing is tight and smart and (I think) will wear well with age. Bullock plays an older, more effective, un-made-over version of her Miss Congeniality character, except she doesn’t actually seem lonely. And Melissa McCarthy is just so good to watch — she shows that she can deliver a sly line as well as she can do physical humor. Best of all, unlike Bridesmaids, this film shows that McCarthy’s physical humor doesn’t have to descend to fat jokes. Oh, excuse me — I meant enlightened fat jokes.

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The tepid reviews meant that it took me a long time to see The Heat, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and written by Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation) — so long that I was surprised to see it still in theaters after 5 weeks here, considering how quickly films get yanked these days. Yet my theater had lots of people in it, and we all laughed throughout — even the 80-something couple behind me, who were unperturbed by the language, etc.

Let me repeat: it’s not perfect. The comedy is broad and often crude. The movie gets put on hold at the end of the 2nd act while the two leads bond by getting drunk in a bar together (right: never seen that one before). I loved the writing, but you can tell it was written for the small screen, even if it comes from a writer on one of teevee’s best shows. The Heat sometimes feels like the female comedy film is still in its awkward tween phase, with occasional disconnects between writing, acting, plot, and tropes.

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But to focus on its awkward tween-ness is to miss what’s really enjoyable about this film — and that has to do with how the story of a partnership between two 40-something women is different than between men.

Some of the snarkiest comments about the film come from critics who overstate its feminist elements. “Nothing quite says female empowerment like violating the civil rights of criminal suspects, am I right?” asks Andrew O’Hehir of Salon in a review that makes me want to use a blunt instrument to take some air out of his self-inflated balloon. But then, he thought the derivative male buddy movie Two Guns was completely “enjoyable trash,” so perhaps pity is the more appropriate response.

Anyway. Is The Heat overtly feminist? No, not really, aside from a few comments about how hard it is to be a woman in law enforcement. Rather, it’s a secret, sly feminism that emerges in the way the story refuses to play by the old rules.

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First is the way the film up-ends virtually every trope about female cops, as Ashley Fetters details in The Atlantic. Movies have taught us that women are the newest and least experienced cops on the force; that they hunt serial killers from a distance or in ways that don’t require mano-a-mano exchange with perps; that they don’t use violence; and that they just wanna be loved. In each respect, The Heat acts as if those assumptions never existed. 

Bullock’s and McCarthy’s characters don’t care how they look. Not only are they not looking for love, they seem to take for granted the fact that men are interested in them (and they are): McCarthy has a whole string of lovelorn former hookups who haunt the bars of Boston, hoping to run into her.

The-Heat banner bullock mccarthyBest of all, this film was not about The Pretty One and The Fat One. Bullock’s character gets a lot of shit for her mannish looks and heavy jawline — in fact, I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to look at her again without thinking of the whipsaw barrage of questions thrown at her by McCarthy’s obnoxious Boston family. There are no fat jokes. They’re both smart and capable and competitive and capable of violence and somewhat isolated. The way they find friendship with one another is sweet without being cloying.

I also noticed the actorly generosity between the two women. There’s no doubt that McCarthy gets the better lines, but that’s in keeping with the way that Bullock’s straight-laced character has to play catch-up. “That’s a misrepresentation of my vagina,” she says lamely (and very funnily) after one string of verbal abuse. I’ve never seen either woman share the limelight so effectively.

Sandra-Bullock-Melissa-McCarthy-The-Heat-TrailerSo yeah, the movie is occasionally crude and won’t pass any authenticity tests with police-show aficionados. I’m mostly uninterested in those complaints. I want to see The Heat 2, with a more experienced Dippold doing the writing and these two growing into their characters — simply because for the female comedy film to flower as a beautiful teenager, we need plenty of funny, watchable, and well-written films to pave the way. Because in the meantime, awkward tweens can still make for damn good viewing. And what else do you want to do on a Saturday afternoon other than guffaw at a lot of goof, with women (for once) doing the goofing?

 

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I know what you’re thinking: hell, here comes another Halloween and I feel pressured to go as a Sexy Witch. Or a Naughty Evil Librarian. Or a Playboy Bunny of Death. Girls’ and women’s costumes have been completely hijacked by Proctor & Gamble, porn culture, and the Beauty Industrial Complex such that if you’re not showing a lotta T&A when you go to that cocktail party, you might as well kiss goodbye any chance of getting a date, ever (or so we are led to believe).

It’s at moments like this that I suggest you ask, “What would Leslie Knope do?”
(WWLKD for short) — that is, put yourself in the sensible shoes of Amy Poehler’s character in Parks and Recreation, that bullheaded feminist whose desk is covered with photos of great women like Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright. Leslie Knope says that when you’re wondering how to dress for Halloween, think Athena!

I mean, having a spear and shield is always handy for parties, and going as Athena means you get to say things like, “I was born from my father’s head with all this great armor on already!” or “Say that again, and I’ll stick my spear straight up your nose into your brain.” Plus, you get an owl.

If you’re not really the knowledge/ reason/ heavy armor kinda gal, maybe you’d prefer going as Marie Curie (just figure out a way to glow in the dark — how awesome would that be?), or Carrie Nation, the turn-of-the-century temperance crusader who marched into bars with a hatchet and chopped them to pieces as a way of making her point that the nation needed prohibition laws.

Let’s pause on the Carrie Nation idea for a moment (I mean, that Ken Burns series, Prohibition, was just on TV this fall — people will actually get that reference!). Can you imagine how great it’ll be to show up to a cocktail party as Carrie Nation?!? That’s way more scary than a Sexy Zombie or Sexy Vampire. Plus, you get to wear that lace collar! (Sadly, the Carrie Nation outfit does not come with an owl.)

So show some imagination, people! Strike envy into the hearts of those poor wispy types shivering in their Playboy Bunny or Air Hostess from the 60s outfits, even as you steal their potential dates. Hold up your hatchet / spear / glowing arm and ask, “Did you forget to ask yourself, What Would Leslie Knope Do?

I mean, who wouldn’t want to date the glowing Marie Curie or the woman with the hatchet? I’m turned on just thinking about it. Your potential dates will mutter to themselves, “I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew. I feel impossibly transfixed by that amazing woman in the helmet. Is it possible she could tell me as much about weaving as the art of war?”

She’s my favorite woman on TV right now. I love everything about her, such that when this month’s New York Magazine appeared with a silly slideshow of great photos, I clicked through every one (that’s where I found this one). I’m even considering pre-ordering the new book written by her Parks and Recreation character, Leslie Knope, entitled Pawnee, the Greatest Town in America.

One of my favorite running gags in the show is a description of the town of Pawnee, Indiana’s murals, which seem to show — invariably — offensive aspects of the town’s history (and they’re on display in a different slideshow at Details magazine). Take, for example, this one:

The show’s characters explain:

Leslie: What you doing in these parts?
Dave: Oh, I just, uh, I came by to see the murals. This one is pretty amazing.
Leslie: Yeah, this one’s a beauty. You know, in the 1880’s, there were a few years that were pretty rough and tumble in Pawnee. This depicts kind of a famous fight between Reverend Bradley and Annabeth Stevenson, a widowed mother of seven. The original title of this was “A Lively Fisting.” But y’know, they had to change it for … obvious reasons.
Dave: She’s got him by the hair pretty good there.
Leslie: Yeah.