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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When I checked the showtimes online for Bridesmaids, here’s what the theater website told me:

This spring, producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) and director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) invite you to experience Bridesmaids

And to think I was going to see it because it’s a movie written by women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) and stars six of them. Hollywood has just discovered that not only are women funny, but audiences will flock to see them (the movie took in $7.8 million yesterday alone, coming in a close second to Thor 3D) — so, to smooth the way, it puts up a lot of male boldface names in the movie’s ads.

Yet I left the theater with the realization that, in terms of tone at least, this film has Judd Apatow all over it. In fact, if one fed the scripts for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad into a supercomputer, one would find there’s an Apatow formula that strikes a balance between poop jokes, awkward sex scenes, eccentric secondary figures, and genuinely affecting sentimental moments between the main characters. Am I saying that Bridesmaids is just warmed-over Apatow? Not at all: this film is in many ways a total delight. Placing those elements into a film about the biggest chestnut of all female-oriented plots — the run-up to your best friend’s wedding — seems, to me at least, much better than just a female version of Apatow’s own clichéd plots (high school boys on a quest for alcohol and girls, etc.).

Maybe I’ve just been reading too many articles about Hollywood’s slow acknowledgement that audiences want to see women being funny, but it was hard for me to see it without that topic in mind, as if the film was trying to make a point. (Remember when Hollywood discovered, via American Pie in 1999, that women liked sex? Gee, thanks for small favors.) Previously, Hollywood has tended to hold to a three-part philosophy concerning female humor, as Tad Friend notes in his piece about the comedian Anna Faris in The New Yorker:

  • Women don’t have to be funny.
  • Also, women aren’t funny.
  • Really, they’re not.

If nothing else, Bridesmaids blows those concepts out of the water. The women in this film use every comic trick in the book — they run the gamut from subtle to broad and display great gifts for physical comedy when it’s required. Plus, the film wins prizes from me for taking apart the wedding industrial complex fairly handily, especially considering I’d just spent an hour on the phone with a friend suggesting plausible-sounding excuses for skipping a bridal shower.

But I also don’t want to oversell this movie. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, not much more. As with last year’s Easy A, this movie is funny, alternately gross and sweet, and features some surprisingly touching moments; Kristen Wiig in the lead role knows when to trot out her Saturday Night Live absurdities and when to rein them in; and the other leads (Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne) are terrific, while Wendi McLendon-Covey (the blousy blonde from Reno: 911) doesn’t get quite enough screen time for my liking. For two much more diametrical responses, read the smart back-and-forth about this film on the Bitch website between Kjerstin Johnson and Kelsey Wallace.

My strongest criticism boils down to the fat jokes. I love the actress Melissa McCarthy — she played the best friend on The Gilmore Girls and more recently had a brief and celebrated run on Mike & Molly, a show I never saw but which got a lot of love from people whose opinion I respect. Those same writers have been divided on her appearance here. Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood loved the film and especially McCarthy, saying “she shows a woman who is fun and sexual and raunchy and real and ready to beat the crap out of you on a moment’s notice. That’s what was so great about her character, you had no idea what was coming next.” On the other hand, Bitch‘s Johnson and Wallace decried the “lazy” jokes levied at the “unrefined fat woman” who burps out loud, waddles through a couple of scenes (har, har!), and comes across as butch. (McCarthy has explained in interviews that she modeled her character on the abrasive, loud, yet oddly appealing Food Channel star, Guy Fieri — a decision I find brilliant.)

I’m going to take for granted that readers of this blog are enlightened enough to be aware of fat phobia, unlike the 20-something woman jackass in the theater next to me who squeaked, “Gross!” at the sight of one of McCarthy’s big ankles. Obviously none of us wants to see a movie that gets cheap laughs from the sight of a fat woman. But equally obviously none of us would say that fat women should be kept out of comedies, or that they’re not allowed to be funny, or that they’re not allowed to use physical humor. Silverstein puts it nicely: “Fat women never have fun in films. They might laugh but always when people are laughing at them” — whereas in this one McCarthy’s character is having a blast, moving forward with that Fieri-like assuredness that renders impossible a simplistic reading of her character. It’s important to note that at a crucial moment in the film, McCarthy’s character steps forward to show a truly heroic self-awareness, competence, sensitivity, and dedication to her friends (in fact, it sounds as if McCarthy herself is responsible for that plot development). So I return to the question: do I forgive the few bad fat jokes because overall we laugh with McCarthy and appreciate her character so much?

In the end, I remain divided on whether the fat jokes ruin Bridesmaids. I’m still persuaded enough by a Silverstein-like appreciation for McCarthy’s character and performance to refrain from a full-throated complaint. Perhaps this is Hollywood’s first experiment with enlightened fat phobia, pace Susan Douglas’s enlightened sexism: that is, the film tries to tell us that it’s okay to regress back to fat jokes because the fat woman is a successful and comparatively three-dimensional character. Let’s face it: I laugh at some of those enlightened sexist ads on TV — first and foremost the Old Spice dude who says, “Look again! It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love!” That extra layer of irony seems to excuse the fat jokes because they’re not the old, unenlightened fat jokes. It’s a fat phobia that seems to accept — even celebrate — the fat woman on the surface, but in reality it repudiates fat people and keeps them in their place as the comic sidekicks. Maybe.