Melissa McCarthy is a profane, badly dressed, supremely confident wonder in "The Heat."
As a Boston police detective who wears MC Hammer pants and threatens perps, colleagues and know-it-all FBI agents (Sandra Bullock) alike with bodily harm (often following through), McCarthy does not waver in comic conviction.
She presents whatever ridiculous thing her character says as irrefutable truth, backing it up with a straight face and solid stance. Her performance is the showpiece of this often hilarious but shapeless buddy-cop comedy. Bullock, an able and forever-lovable straight woman, is the bigger star in general but the second-biggest star of "The Heat."
Directed by Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids") and written by Katie Dippold ("Parks & Recreation"), "The Heat" plays as a series of comic opportunities rather than as a movie with a through-line story. Dippold provides just enough context to get the FBI agent and Boston cop together – the FBI is tracking a crime kingpin in the cop's Boston jurisdiction – so that they then can proceed to play bad-cop/good-cop and get drunk together.
All pretense of tension in the crime story is abandoned once Michael McDonald, who played the little boy Stuart on "MadTV," appears on screen as one of the main villains.
Yet "The Heat" contains some unexpectedly bloody moments to go with its barrage of profanity.
"The Heat" is designed to let McCarthy do her thing, with Bullock following her lead.
McCarthy's character, Shannon Mullins, questions the manhood of her captain (Tom Wilson) in elaborate detail and within earshot of the whole department. She refers to Bullock's character's FBI boss (Demián Bichir), who speaks with a Spanish accent, as Puss 'n' Boots, after Antonio Banderas' "Shrek" character.
To the guy's face.
McCarthy's committed delivery recalls Will Ferrell's, but Mullins is the smartest person in this film, whereas Ferrell usually plays the dumbest.
She also sometimes evokes Amy Poehler in giving her character an unflinching belief in her own opinions.
Yet the closest comparison lies with roles McCarthy already played: her brazen criminal in this year's "Identity Thief" and her oddball but upbeat bridesmaid in "Bridesmaids," the 2011 film that turned TV lead McCarthy ("Mike & Molly") into a movie star and an Oscar nominee.
But "The Heat" frees McCarthy of the need for confessional moments that "Bridesmaids" and "Identity Thief" required. Her characters in those movies had demons. Mullins does not.
"The Heat" presents Mullins as fully formed and great at her job. She does not need to grow and change and learn during the film's course.
It's Bullock's character, Sarah Ashburn, who needs help. She alienates her FBI colleagues by showing off her superior investigation skills. She's a teacher's-pet type whose teacher (the likeably gruff Bichir) thinks she's an overachieving dork.
Putting the burden of character arc on Bullock lets McCarthy exude assuredness as a unique screen presence: a woman of size who does not apologize for it in word or posture. She's not motherly or sassy or anyone's sidekick. Ashburn is her sidekick and must live up to her standards.
Bullock plays a variation on her "Miss Congeniality" FBI agent here.
Actually, Ashburn – a straight arrow who will learn to let her hair down as the movie unfolds – forms a composite of every character Bullock has played in broad comedies.
That Bullock succeeds in broad comedies testifies to her selflessness as an actress. She's not much of a physical comedian. She's actually better in dramatic roles. But pair her with the right funny person – McCarthy here, Ryan Reynolds in "The Proposal," Hugh Grant in "Two Weeks Notice," – and she becomes funny by extension because she's so willing to let her screen partner shine.
In "The Heat," she matches McCarthy's comedic tenor instead of establishing her own. This approach suits the characters' relationship, because the Boston cop constantly schools the FBI agent – on how to treat criminals (with a lack of respect, followed by brute force) or how to entice a sleazeball criminal on a nightclub's dance floor (Mullins advises Ashburn to show a lot of skin; Mullins herself shows her sexuality through movement, she tells the FBI agent.)
Nearly 49, and far better-looking than most women 20 years her junior, Bullock stretches it by playing another socially inept career woman. But the setup works (barely) in the context of these two women, both of whom are job-obsessed. People like them exist.
Few spew profanity as freely as Mullins does, though. The success of "Bridesmaids" proved that a raunchy female comedy can succeed, and the creative forces behind "The Heat" clearly relish that opening. But they need not have inserted so many curse words into McCarthy's comic lines to get them to land. Her delivery works on its own.
If only the filmmakers had shared McCarthy's confidence. But that level of swagger is hard to come by.
Two 1/2 stars
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock, Demián Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael McDonald
Director: Paul Feig
Rated R (pervasive language, some crude content, some violence)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.