When “The Heat” premieres in theaters Friday, it may show Melissa McCarthy changing movies yet again.
McCarthy was part of the ensemble in “Bridesmaids” – and to many, the most memorable part – which showed that women could star in a successful movie that was as unapologetically raunchy as male fare like “Superbad” and “The Hangover,” but without the upper-class gloss of “Sex and the City.” With “Identity Thief” earlier this year, she demonstrated that an actress did not have to be a little twig to carry a box-office blockbuster.
Now, she and Oscar winner Sandra Bullock are out to revive an only intermittently visible form with “The Heat.” Directed by “Bridesmaids’ ” Paul Feig, it stars Bullock as an uptight FBI agent and McCarthy as a rules-breaking cop, who are pushed together for a case.
Even in a trailer for the movie, Bullock fans will quickly note similarities to her characters in the hits “Miss Congeniality” and “The Proposal,” while McCarthy is once again as unhinged as she was in “Bridesmaids” and “Identity Thief.” But whatever they have done elsewhere, Bullock and McCarthy together are offering a relatively rare movie form: a buddy movie starring two women – even more specifically, an action-comedy starring two women.
Ask about famous buddy movies and get ready for a long list: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the various “Lethal Weapons,” “48 HRS.” (and its sequel), “I Love You, Man,” “Trading Places,” the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby movies, the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder films, Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby, Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau (who even starred in a film called “Buddy Buddy”), Wayne and Garth, “Dumb and Dumber,” “Bad Boys” (and its sequel), “Swingers,” “The Other Guys” (which both embraced and poked fun at the action-buddy movie).
And now try the same thing, only with movies starring women. There’s “Thelma & Louise.” And?
When CNN.com greeted “The Hangover Part III” with a rundown of 20 great buddy films, 18 were about males while only two starred women: the aforementioned “Thelma & Louise,” which dates to 1991, and the comedy “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion,” from 1997.
Whereas most male-centered buddy movies tend to be about two men – the “Hangover” films are among the more noteworthy exceptions – women-buddy films seem to need larger groups to qualify. Toronto Film Scene’s list featured a trio (“First Wives’ Club”), quartet (“Friends With Money”) and quintet (“The Jane Austen Book Club”). That and other lists of women as buddies have cited “Bridesmaids,” “Waiting to Exhale,” “Sex and the City,” “Steel Magnolias” (done twice, with different casts), “The Women” and its remake, “Enchanted April” and other group efforts.
(TV, however, has been a regular home to pairs like “Mary and Rhoda,” “Cagney and Lacey” and, currently, “Rizzoli and Isles.”)
It could be argued that the golden age of female-buddy movies was the ’80s, and that Bette Midler was the unofficial queen of the form. In 1987 and 1988 she had three movies that have made it onto women-buddies lists: “Beaches” (with Barbara Hershey), “Big Business” (with Lily Tomlin) and “Outrageous Fortune” (with Shelley Long). She was also part of the oft-cited, later “First Wives’ Club” with Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton.
Only even there, we are dealing with movies that are often about bonding and more than a few tears, and not so ready to have their leads strap on a shoulder holster and take down some perps. Let’s not forget how things ended for Thelma and Louise.
Women are active in the military and in law enforcement. Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most tough-minded directors working (see “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker”). But, as Daniel Johnson noted on Screen Rant, this kind of film tends to be male-dominated. If we see tough women, they often tend either to be solo performers (as Angelina Jolie has been in several films) or part of a larger, and mostly male, ensemble.
So can things change with “The Heat”? As with just about anything in Hollywood, a big box-office success will get studios and stars thinking about ways to replicate the formula. “The Heat” trailer, as mentioned, recalls earlier hits with the two stars. And, with Bullock and McCarthy, “The Heat” has put the buddy formula in the hands of two of the most-liked current stars.
But a real test may be how “The Heat” does against another movie opening the same day: “White House Down.” It’s an action movie with a familiar premise – the White House under siege, also the subject of Olympus Has Fallen earlier this year – and a popular lead, Channing Tatum. At least one of the movie’s trailers has played up a buddy relationship between Tatum’s tough guy and the U.S. president (Jamie Foxx). Will the audience opt for that combination, or turn to the gender shift of “The Heat”?