Dozens upon dozens of buddy cop comedies have come and gone at the box office over the years, mostly starring gruff straight men cracking wise while chasing outlandish criminals. We’ve even had one buddy cop flick, Turner & Hooch, that starred a man and his dog. Yet, until now, there’s never been one featuring two female leads. Enter The Heat.
This weekend’s major release stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as a buttoned-up FBI agent (in other words, the Bullock role) and an outspoken, outlandish, crass-in-the-lovable-way Boston detective (in other words, the McCarthy role) paired up to crack a drug ring. Bullock, coming off the successes of The Proposal and The Blind Side, is as bankable as ever, and she’s in her element here. McCarthy is Hollywood’s fastest rising star, parlaying her Bridesmaids Oscar nomination into her first top-lined No. 1 hit with Identity Thief.
If either actress was one half of a buddy comedy opening just before the Independence Day weekend, it would be a big deal and box-office projections would be huge. Of course, traditionally the second half of that duo would be a man—Hugh Grant, Benjamin Bratt, Jason Bateman. That the two actresses are starring in a buddy cop movie together and box-office expectations are still massive is a big deal, even if it’s a depressing one.
“It’s the first big movie about female buddies since Bridesmaids, which was supposed to change the world,” Lynda Obst, producer of Sleepless in Seattle and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and author of Hello, He Lied—and Other Tales From the Hollywood Trenches, tells The Daily Beast. “But it didn’t. Basically it made Melissa McCarthy a star, which allowed for The Heat and Identity Thief, but that’s the only thing.”
Certainly, “buddy movies” with two females in the lead are hardly new. Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey starred in Beaches, but that wasn’t exactly a laugh riot. Thelma and Louise found its title characters, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, on the other side of the law. Even as far as buddy comedies go, films like Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion (starring Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino) and Baby Mama (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) were decidedly feminine as far as subject matter goes.
Then there’s the string of female-ensemble successes, as few and far between as they’ve been over the decades: Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect, and The Help, recently; and then Sex and the City, 9 to 5, and Steel Magnolias, which continue to resonate in pop culture. But like Romy & Michelle and Baby Mama, those movies, by and large, are easy to describe as, well, girlie.
The Heat breaks into, for the first time, the male-driven buddy cop genre, and does so without obsessing over or even focusing on the gender of its leads. Still, it’s telling that the Wikipedia page for “Buddy Cop Films,” which lists, essentially, every buddy cop movie ever made with a six- or seven-word plot synopsis, describes The Heat merely as “female FBI special agent teamed with female detective.” You won’t be surprised to hear that no other film on the list specifies the gender of the main character, and most provide more insight into what the movie is about besides, basically, “stars chicks!”
The concept of The Heat isn’t revolutionary. Law enforcement officials with wildly different temperaments paired together for the case—The Odd Couple in a patrol car—is the tried-and-true conceit that powered 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon all the way up to, most recently, The Other Guys starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. The Heat, while not reinventing the wheel, reinvents the genre entirely simply by making the leads two women. Until now, as John Anderson of Newsday notes, “The closest the buddy-cop genre has come to that was White Chicks, in which Shawn and Marlon Wayans played women in whiteface drag.” (Interestingly enough, the latter Wayans has a small role in The Heat.)
“This was it, a pairing where everyone was equal and you had these storylines that weren’t girly,” Bullock told the Los Angeles Times. “It had depth and humor and balls and action. It was just something I saw the boys getting to do.”
Early coverage of the film compares it to Bridesmaids, which is fair to a degree. It’s directed by Paul Feig, who helmed the Kristen Wiig–led hit, and it earns its R rating, allowing Bullock and McCarthy to curse and talk crudely about sex in the same gleeful way that earned the litany of think pieces about Wiig, who cowrote the Bridesmaids script, and her co-stars as female comedy trailblazers when the film came out.
“The story became that ‘Bridesmaids’ overperformed. Like 50,000 scripts turned up on managers’ desks for two weeks, but no one was willing to take a shot on them.”
But the better comparison is to those male buddy cop comedies. The Heat’s plot doesn’t revolve around weddings. Unlike Miss Congeniality and its sequel, in which Bullock plays an FBI agent, this is definitely not a romantic comedy. Like Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, and The Other Guys, the movie is about two partners fighting crime and the friendship that grows between them.
Sure, just as those other buddy cop flicks include witty banter about girls and boobs and beer, there’s believable and appropriate bickering about the female counterparts to those things in The Heat. There’s a joke about Spanx, and the long line of broken-hearted men loved-and-left by McCarthy’s character becomes a running gag in the movie. But they’re just that—jokes, not the film’s preoccupation. It seems like a silly thing to praise for a major summer release starring two Hollywood A-listers, but it’s a serious achievement.
There’s a metric in Hollywood called the Bechdel Test, which was created by ’80s cartoonist Alison Bechdel to judge gender bias in films. To pass, the movie much star at least two women in prominent roles, they must talk to each other, and they must discuss something besides a man.
You think passing the Bechdel Test is easy? Think again. Here’s just a few movies that do not pass the test, despite featuring well-rounded, strong female characters: The Princess Bride, The Wedding Singer, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Run Lola Run, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, and the entire Lord of the Rings and original Star Wars trilogy. Alien, which features one of the most multidimensional, inspirational female characters in cinema history, only passes because of one brief conversation Ripley and Lambert have about the alien.
A deeper dive into this summer’s other major comedy hits’ scripts is needed to determine if the likes of The Hangover Part 3, This Is the End, or Pain and Gain pass the test. Let’s just say it would not be surprising if all three fail.
But maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating the stars’ gender being painted as inconsequential to The Heat’s expected success. “What’s interesting about the way they’re selling this film is that they’re selling it as a male comedy,” Obst says. “You sell a movie to men because women will go anyway—you won’t lose a single female viewer. The advertising is selling it as a classic buddy cop movie with only a couple winks at the fact that it stars women.”
So if the film’s a hit—and it will be—the starved female audience who will turn up to The Heat because they’re clamoring for a film for them won’t be given credit, and therefore more female-driven comedies won’t be greenlit. “There will be more McCarthy movies, more Bullock movies,” Obst says. “Look back to Bridesmaids. It was really funny and did well internationally and created new stars. It proved that there was a female market. Instead, the story became that the movie overperformed. Like 50,000 scripts turned up on managers’ desks for two weeks, but no one was willing to take a shot on them.”
In other words, expect the only careers to get hot off The Heat to be Bullock’s and McCarthy’s themselves. Obst says it best: “It’s pretty bloody depressing, isn’t?”