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A hot mess of a character 

Melissa McCarthy steals the show in buddy comedy 'The Heat.'

click to enlarge 'THE HEAT': Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy star image
  • 'THE HEAT': Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy star.

"The Heat" is that rare and wonderful sort of movie in which the characters haven't the faintest notion they're in a comedy. They all arrived locked and loaded for a police procedural about an odd-couple pairing: a Felix of an FBI agent with an Oscar of a Boston beat cop reluctantly teaming up to take down some shady drug kingpin. Except the terminally uptight fed is Sandra Bullock, who quietly packs some formidable comedic chops. And the scrub on the beat is Melissa McCarthy, who is such a physical comedy tour-de-force, such a vulgarian whirlwind, that the film lurches into the delightfully ridiculous with her every scene. With the exception of her Red Sawwwwwks-loving family, no one else in "The Heat" registers much of a chuckle until they bump into McCarthy. Director Paul Feig ("Freaks and Geeks," "Bridesmaids") hands the heavy lifting to her, and the comedienne lugs the entire enterprise into utter delirium.

What laughs don't belong to McCarthy fall to Bullock's special agent, a high-achieving Yalie without so much as a cat to call her own (she hijacks her neighbor's tabby for fridge-ready snapshots). She parachutes into Boston with a promotion on her mind, hoping to stop some psycho who keeps carving his enemies into little chunks. There she runs afoul of McCarthy, a shoeleather cop whose idea of serving/protecting involves phoning the wife when she catches a john soliciting some hanky-panky, and running down a small-time dealer in her crapbox hooptie. But the FBI has info and the Boston officer knows the streets. The two separately unbearable women must, yes, work together to catch the bad guy.

Yeah, so the plot is a veritable shotgun shack (look in the front, see clear through to the back) and the script leans on some reductive stereotypes (against albinism, foremost). Screenwriter Katie Dippold has written episodes of "Mad TV" and "Parks and Recreation," and there is almost a sketch-comedy feel to the scenes, which seem mostly designed to give McCarthy chances to dog-cuss Bullock. At least "The Heat" avoids the maudlin touches that made McCarthy's last vehicle, the uneven but lucrative "Identity Thief," such a simpering dud. Not that she can't pluck a heartstring. It's just that she's more fun as a violent, crude mess of a human.

How much of that owes to her body type, and obvious contrast to her fellow leading lady, could make for a real debate. Why should the teen-skinny Bullock, who's pushing 50, still get cast as the brittle Ivy Leaguer while McCarthy, who's as full-figured as any leading lady in Hollywood, yet again becomes the oafish malcontent? To its credit, "The Heat" doesn't pick on McCarthy's size for laughs, except as parcel to her physical comedy. A lighter actress with her talents might be just as adept at slow-hurdling a chain-link fence or clambering through the open windows of closely parked cars — but it's hard to imagine such a performer being funnier than McCarthy, cursing like a prison guard as she careens from one humiliating fix to the next. As an actress she seems to follow the old advice, the best advice, to work it if you got it. That unique physique is but one of several bullets in her clip, and she has no shame about firing them all, usually while aiming at some dirtbag's crotch.

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