As he proved in the alternately sharp and soft 2011 smash Bridesmaids, director Paul Feig is very good at creating an antic mood that has pleasantly gentle edges. He co-created Freaks & Geeks, after all, a show that was teasing but never mean, weird and surprising without ever losing sight of its naturalistic world. And so we come to The Heat, Feig's latest directorial effort, a buddy cop comedy that's sweet and foul-mouthed, a rude caper that endears as much with its understated sentiment as it does with its symphonic blue streaks.
Which isn't to suggest that The Heat is in any way mushy or touch-feely. No, mostly it is a profane, slapstick run around a couple Boston blocks, done gamely and lovably by its two leads, Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. McCarthy plays Mullins, a loose cannon East Boston cop who plays by her own rules and gets results. It's a fun tweak on a character we've seen before — Mullins may get the job done, but her life is a squalid shambles, and she's got some good old fashioned Irish family strife to deal with too. (She put her ne'er-do-well brother in jail.) Her sloppy but successful routine is interrupted by the arrival of Ashburn, the uptight, ambitious, rules-oriented FBI agent played by Bullock. She's in town to investigate some brutal drugland killings, and after some bickering the two warily team up, Mullins intent on saving her neighborhood, Ashburn on getting a coveted promotion.
McCarthy, working with a screenplay by Katie Dippold, gets to have most of the fun for the bulk of the film. Spewing out florid and intricate insults involving balls and other body parts, McCarthy proves herself a wizard of caustic verbiage that's so lowbrow it's highbrow. McCarthy, and the larger movie, deftly skirts the line between abundance and excess. She takes us to the point where all the barbed comebacks and f--k laden soliloquies almost feel like too much, just barely at the threshold of repetitiveness, but then she dials it back and the movie takes us in a quieter, occasionally more downbeat direction. That's usually where Bullock comes in, and she ably plays the straight woman, though it's a shame that she really doesn't get to let loose with her own brand of daffy mania and limber pratfalls until the film's final quarter. But, as the sounding board for all of McCarthy's wonderful noise, she does her job admirably.
Feig has populated his movie with a sturdy supporting cast, among them Nate Corddry and Joey McIntyre as two of Mullins's loud, hectoring brothers. They both add some nice local flavor to the film, which uses its Boston setting well, though perhaps not as thoroughly or imaginatively as it could have. There's not much by way of a plot either — the murder investigation hits a few bumps and takes a few turns, that's about it — but that's forgivable when the pair at the center are playing off of one another in such lively sync. By the time the movie gets to its more sentimental moments, we've already fallen for the friendship, McCarthy and Bullock having such vivid and effective chemistry.
Feig is keenly aware of the comedic sparks between the two, and he graciously backs off and lets them do their thing, all the while carefully steering them toward more and more fertile territory. Unlike his contemporary and occasional colleague Judd Apatow, who can sometimes let his improv-happy actors run away with his films, Feig is efficient. He knows when to let a scene bounce around for a bit and when it's time to move on. (He gets his movie in under two hours, something Apatow hasn't done since The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) These three should work together again, such easy and winning music they make together. Talk about heat! (Oof.)
There's also plenty to like in Roland Emmerich's new Die Hard homage White House Down, a goofy and delightfully unpretentious new action picture about a siege on the president's house. Channing Tatum, all muted swagger in the role of John Cale, a Capitol Police officer caught in the middle of the maelstrom, makes for a decent Bruce Willis stand-in, though he doesn't have quite the same blue-collar wiseacre 'tude that made John McClane such crabby fun. Still, he acquits himself well when, while Cale is on a White House tour with his obnoxiously precocious daughter, a team of murderous commandos takes over the building, executing all the Secret Service and other security in the building and taking everyone else hostage. Cale, of course, gets away, and soon winds up face to face with the president himself, a principled and good-hearted commander in chief played by Jamie Foxx. Turned down for a Secret Service job just that morning, Cale takes it upon himself to protect the president while trying to rescue his daughter. Complications ensue, bang bang, no kiss kiss.
As is by now Emmerich tradition, White House Down features an hysterically corny script, this one written by James Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt done some actually good stuff in the past (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man), so I'm guessing that this material is intentionally hokey. Let's hope so, because no one should write lines like "That's what I'm talking about!" with any sincerity in the year 2013. I suppose there are some stabs at seriousness, mostly found in the terrorists' plot — it involves anger over the Middle East and the military, though I don't want to spoil anything for you (haha, just kidding, it is immediately obvious who the villain is) — but mostly White House Down seems deeply invested in silliness, giving us both action sequences and talkier bits that are so square and earnest you can't help but laugh with affection.
That's what I like about Emmerich's films — they harken back to the less cynical, snarky, and self-aware days of the '80s and '90s, when not everything had to be commentary or allegory or real enough to be "believable." He's not always successful — Godzilla, 10,000 BC — but Emmerich often enough finds unexpected chords of comfort amidst all his epic chaos. (And then there was his surprisingly lovely, if historically garbled, Shakespeare authorship passion project Anonymous. Who knew!) White House Down continues that tradition, giving us a familiar setup blown up to larger proportions and calibrated in such a way that the rip-roaring action can give way to groaner comedy without any interruption. Emmerich has also once again cast a group of interesting actors, people like Richard Jenkins and James Woods and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who do what they can with the cardboard roles written for them. That's the game, I suspect; seeing what good people can do with this perfectly crafted junk.
It's fun these days to see a summer action movie that isn't fussed with making us feel any dark emotion or sociopolitical rumbling. White House Down is simply a good blow-'em-up time, with a vein of goopy patriotism running throughout. (Interestingly, the movie is actually about saving the Middle East.) It's perfect fare as we shuffle on toward the Fourth of July holiday. Without any agenda beyond being fun, White Houes Down feels, blessedly, like a summer vacation.