The team-up of Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy looks on paper to be a sure-fire formula for comic gold; both gifted comediennes, they also possess temperaments and physical packages diametrically opposed enough to recreate the kind of comedy made famous by such duos as Abbott and Costello or Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. In “The Heat,” they play mismatched law enforcement officers who bicker and bumble their way into solving a crime and finding a friend. The conceit of the film, which was written by Katie Dippold and directed by Paul Feig — who directed McCarthy to sudden stardom in “Bridesmaids” — is that for all their differences, both share an essential loneliness that has kept them isolated and miserable.
That sad subtext gives much of the humor in “The Heat” a melancholy edge, especially when it comes to McCarthy, who once again is forced into a role that asks little more of her than swearing like a stevedore and subjecting herself to undignified slapstick centered around her generous figure. (An early bit has her crashing over a fence while she’s pursuing a young, lithe perpetrator; a few moments later, she’s trying to get out of a car wedged into a tight parking space, finally wriggling over a series of front seats like an ungainly eel.)
Bullock plays McCarthy’s opposite number: uptight, put-together and prim, so you know going in that “The Heat” will feature at least one drunken girl-bonding montage, which in this case arrives almost as a random, perfunctory insert. Earlier, when they try to bug the phone of a suspect in a disco, Feig films the action so closeup that the scene’s rich wealth of physical comedy is almost completely squandered.
Seen through one lens, “The Heat” is the product of a cheering trend in female-centered comedies, a feminist sister under the skin to “Bridesmaids.” Seen through another, it revolves around the retrograde novelty of watching women swagger, spout vulgarities, brandish guns and toss around references to their vaginas (not to mention the odd areola and cervix).
Like Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx in “White House Down,” Bullock and McCarthy and the chemistry they generate are far more compelling than the movie they’re in. Too often the sketches go on too long, and the coarse, abrasive tone quickly begins to feel repetitive and off-putting. There’s already talk of a sequel to “The Heat,” which is good news if only to introduce some refreshing gender balance to the current franchise-movie monoculture. Give these ladies a genuinely smart, funny script — and give McCarthy more to play than what has become a tiresome tomboy shtick — and there’s no telling what liberated heights they can reach.
R. At area theaters. Contains pervasive profanity, strong crude content and some violence.