The new Melissa McCarthy-Sandra Bullock film upends the buddy cop genre
Jenno Topping, president of films at Chernin Entertainment and a producer on the Fox film, considers the lack of male main squeezes key to the appeal of the movie about a pair of mismatched cops. She freely admits it's risky from a business perspective.
"Male figures aren't relevant one way or the other to Sandy and Melissa's journey in this film," Topping told TheWrap. "The very thing that appealed to us the most was the riskiest element of the movie. We had all the naysayers saying you're going to cancel out your audience, because men aren't going to want to see a movie about two women being cops and women won't want to see women playing cops and not wearing pink fluffy dresses."
Topping said Fox especially wanted Bullock, a former queen of romantic comedies, to have a love interest in the movie. Yet the producers and the stars remained adamant that men remain an afterthought.
"It would have changed the constellation of the thing," Topping said. "It was so unusual to see two parts for women that were funny without them being relegated to love interests. It was a platonic love story about women working in a traditionally male workplace, but not in a didactic way."
If the movie succeeds, it could pave the way for more female buddy cop movies, much the way that "Bridesmaids" opened the door to more raunchy comedies revolving around women. Male buddy cop movies have been a staple for years, but women have been relegated to playing sidekicks or at best one half of a law enforcement team.
Bullock, coincidentally, played a fashion-impaired FBI agent in "Miss Congeniality," while McCarthy has been upending expectations about female roles since breaking out in "Bridesmaids." "The Heat," like "Bridesmaids," was directed by Paul Feig and based on a screenplay written by a woman, Katie Dippold.
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The movie boasts a tracheotomy in a Denny's but nary a blushing bride. Bullock plays an uptight FBI agent forced to work with a cranky Boston cop personified by McCarthy while tracking down a drug lord. Neither has had a partner and both are socially impaired. The movie, opening Friday, is on pace to open to $35 million this weekend, according to pre-release tracking.
"Bridesmaids" did have a wedding, although audiences would be hard pressed to pick the groom out of a lineup. It, like "The Heat" and to a lesser degree McCarthy's "Identity Thief," emphasized friendship in place of sexual attraction.
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That's in keeping with modern moviegoers, analysts and marketing experts say. The depictions of women on film mirror the varied experiences of women in the real world and the more jaundiced view of relationships.
"The saccharine is gone, but the heart is there and it's more realistic," veteran marketing researcher and Capstone Global Marketing co-founder Catherine Paura, said. "The role of women in our culture has changed enormously when you think about how many women are head of households, how many women don't get married, how many women are single mothers and what women do at work."
It's also helping to explode the prejudice that women can't be funny; an argument that bubbled up in the mid-aughts thanks to the late Christopher Hitchens' infamous 2007 Vanity Fair essay, in which he asserted that women dampen their humor to appeal to men.
"When the crazy thing years ago was like, 'women aren't funny,' I thought, 'what cave do you live in?'" McCarthy said while promoting "The Heat" at CinemaCon.
"Uncensoring women has I think led to more fun on screen," Bullock said at the same event. She praised "Bridesmaids" as a movie that was less interested in showing women should say or behave in a certain way. "It was just these funny people having awkward life moments and I think it takes the sex out of it," she said.
Barry Mendel, one of the producers of "Bridesmaids," believed the female friendship at the heart of the movie was key to its success, not the racy comedy that grabbed some headlines.
"'Bridesmaids' was raunchy and wild and scatological, but we were trying to tell a complex story of two people who had a close friendship that changed as they got older," Mendel told TheWrap. "It's about a woman who does not feel valued and valuable and all of those ingredients are equally important to why 'Bridesmaids' succeeded."
Thus far, moviegoers are embracing the new kind of comedies with the same intensity that they once rejected romantic comedy duds like "How Do You Know" and "New Year's Eve." "Identity Thief" earned $174 million worldwide on a $35 million budget while "Bridesmaids" scored with $288.4 million on a $32.5 million budget.
Despite the gains women have made in these movies, producers and analysts acknowledge that there are fewer opportunities for them onscreen than men.
"Social change occurs very slowly in big businesses," said Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. "'The Heat' may have two female leads and that's encouraging, but can we name five more studio films with female leads this summer? I wouldn't expect a quick turnaround."
In the meantime, female comedians are taking matters into their own hands. As talent manager Peter Principato of Principato-Young Entertainment notes, Kristen Wiig co-wrote "Bridesmaids," and McCarthy co-wrote and will make her directorial debut in the upcoming comedy "Tammy."
"They're generating material with a strong point of view," Principato said. "They're showing that women can be beautiful and talented and bring the funny just as well as the men."
And that sounds a lot like progress.