A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: Liberating the Familiar

I drove to see The Heat on a pre-monsoon night, with the skies enveloped by clouds that, having dropped nothing, hold the dry hot air close to the ground while irregular winds buffet themselves in every direction at once.  The occasional appearance of lightning and bizarre persistence of dryness always lend an air of pre-apocalyptic surrealism to Tucson summers: it’s like Mother Nature whipped up a storm but forgot to add water.  My trip to the theater wasn’t ideal from a meteorological perspective, or even a personal one: I was working under a pretty tight deadline, but I found myself overcome with the need to sit in the dark and not think too hard for an hour or two, and going to sleep would have been too healthy.

The mood of misrule set by the storm continued inside the theater.  I noticed for the first time that the movie theater had ice cream, which, what?  That sounds like a terrible movie theater treat, even in Arizona during the summer.  Wouldn’t you have to finish eating it before the trailers finished showing, or risk having to drink half of it?  And is ice cream all that refreshing in a severely air-conditioned movie theater, and wouldn’t it cause a huge mess?  And how did I never notice this before?  It had obviously been part of the concessions for some time.  In the theater, a man with a long white beard and unkempt clothing wandered in with a dog that was definitely not a service dog.  They sat down by the front, the man taking a seat at the end of the aisle and the dog laying down in the aisle near his seat.  No one seemed to notice them, though it did seem to be taking a few people some extra effort.

All sense of disorientation quickly fled, however, when The Heat started to play.  The movie’s director, Paul Feig, whose resume would be plenty impressive even if it didn’t include Bridesmaids, has complained about being written out of the history of Freaks and Geeks, the cult NBC comedy he created in 1999, and which is now more associated with co-executive producer Judd Apatow than the man who brought it into existence in the first place.  This is doubtless unfair, but it makes sense for a few reasons.  First, most of the future famous people on Freaks and Geeks (James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, and Busy Phillips) have done a good deal of later work within the Apatow movie machine; second, of the two, Apatow seems to better fit our ideas of a doomed enterprise like Freaks and Geeks.  The This Is 40 writer tends toward excess and messiness, he’s more of a traditional auteur, willing to make 2.5-hour-long movies about broke stand-up comedians that don’t try very hard to be funny. Even in success, there remains some lingering air of the Quixotic about him.

Feig’s aforementioned impressive credentials reveal his near-flawless instincts for good material, but they also betray the workmanlike approach of a professional journeyman, able to integrate himself into many different types of productions without bringing anything particularly distinctive.  This isn’t a slight- Feig has directed episodes of Arrested Development, The Office, Mad MenNurse Jackie, Weeds, and 30 Rock.  Every episode of his I have seen has been at least an above-average episode of the show in question.  Some, like “Office Olympics” and “Dinner Party” from The Office, have been series highlights (yes, he directed both those episodes).  But in all the hours of TV and film I’ve watched that have been formed by his hand, I recall exactly one distinctive image- January Jones, as Betty Draper in Mad Men, shooting pigeons from her front yard with an air rifle while smoking in her bathrobe.  Again, that’s a hell of a shot.  But it’s the only one, and Feig generally seems content to spend most of his time behind the camera ensuring that all the necessary actors are in the frame.

The Heat is paint-by-numbers, visually and story-wise; promising 70s-inspired opening credits give way to a movie that is shot more or less exactly like Bridesmaids, only with less color now that the setting has migrated from the suburban playgrounds of Milwaukee to the deep-seated urban decay of south Boston.  The story is lifted wholesale from 48 HrsLethal Weapon, Rush Hour, hell, Turner and Hooch.  Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg mined the buddy-cop movie for laughs a few short years ago in The Other Guys, and The Heat seems to be built along the same lines, with Sandra Bullock as the uptight, play-by-the-rules federal agent, and Melissa McCarthy as the ball-busting, Southie-born loose cannon.  As usual, the perverse desire to see the principal actors switch roles and go against their traditional typecasting subsided as they showed that typecasting sometimes exists for a reason.  Bullock and McCarthy are both top-shelf comic talent, and watching them work reminds you that their established comic personae are impressive pieces of work, in every sense of the phrase.

Bullock plays a career woman so single-minded in her focus on work, she can’t even succeed at being a lonely cat lady.  You know how the uptight cop generally has some sort of family, including a wife that is always telling him he’s taking too many risks, and she wants him to be careful so that he can be around for his family late?  I would have loved to see Bullock or McCarthy with a husband who spends his time hanging around the house, worrying that his wife is going to get shot, and constantly complaining that she never spends enough time getting to know her kids.  Okay, so this pretty much only happens with Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, but I’d still like to see it.  But we’re closer to 48 Hrs territory here, where the protagonists are screwed up and the most memorable bits come not in the action sequences but the comic interludes (Eddie Murphy walking around the redneck bar with badge in hand, Melissa McCarthy tossing Tony Hale around like a nervous-looking rag doll.  And as long as Bullock and McCarthy are left to their own devices, the movie moves along pleasantly enough.  They have good chemistry and are obviously having a blast, and McCarthy’s performance in particular is a two-hour torrent of physical and verbal abuse that the actress hones to a furious precision.  She’s the real deal, and I’d be surprised if any movie with her in it opened at less than $40 million from here on out.

Unfortunately, The Heat can’t be allowed to remain a skillfully-executed rehash of the buddy-cop genre.  This movie is directed by the guy who helmed Bridesmaids, last year’s annual example of how stupid old Hollywood is letting money slip through their fingers because they don’t cater to women enough, and this movie is proof that if you market movies to women they will go see those movies, and etc. etc.  The validity of the point does nothing to make this annual summer slog through our own sense of moral rectitude any more fun, though at least now we’re able to point to films like Bridesmaids rather than Sex in the City 2. Bridesmaids rose above the tiresome “lady-folk can be in the funny pictures too!” hullaballoo because it didn’t seem to realize that it was supposed to be about women.  Yes, there was a wedding and dress fitting and fondue fountain, but at its core Bridesmaids was just about two friends growing apart and attempting to save their friendship, even while questioning whether it was worth saving.  It was more than just funny, it was good, and interestingly universal.  The Heat occupies a similar position for much of its running time, but every once in a while, the social conscience pokes its head through the comedic membrane, and we’re treated to something that hits a false note (Bullock saying “I know I’m not supposed to say this, but it’s hard being a woman on the force”- I don’t believe this character would ever say these words out loud), or that is just a bit too on-the-nose (a misogynistic pair of DEA agents getting in our heroes’ hair), or that seems calculated to appeal to an audience of think-piece writers for Slate (they shoot the bad guy in the balls- emasculation!  Guess they’re showing the men who’s really in charge!).

Maybe something like this is necessary to create gender balance in Hollywood.  I don’t know, and I’m not in much of a position to decide Personally, I feel that the film is most successful as a social statement when it doesn’t try to do anything other than be a decent summer buddy-cop flick.  Real equality at the movies starts happening when two bankable comic actresses can make a fun action movie without inspiring a brigade of op-eds and thinkpieces, when the only thing that matters about a female-starring comedy is the gales of laughter that reliably emanated from every corner of the theater, as they did during my screening.

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This entry was posted on 2 July 2013 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged , , , , , .
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