Every once in a while, a movie comes along – a comedy, no less – that has just the right alchemy for success. It uses some of the tried-and-true methods to great effect, it breaks some new ground, and it lodges itself in your memory.
The Heat (2013) is still in some theaters and on its way swiftly, no doubt, to on-demand viewing. The laugh-out-loud cop flick pairs Sandra Bullock, as the straight-man, with Melissa McCarthy, full of her usual wild antics.
As per my usual, I’m not much for reciting the plot of a movie. Sandra and Melissa are an “unlikely duo” forced to work together to solve a case and so on and so forth. I’d rather talk about how I’ve loved Melissa McCarthy since her tiny little role in Go (1999) when she was the one to break the news to two boyfriends that they were cheating on each other with the same guy. Her cherubic face and contagious giggling stayed with me – and something else, too – that quality which certain people just seem to have that is unquantifiable, but undeniable. Something we call “star quality” – wasting those words, I’m sure, many a time, because it’s quite rare.
McCarthy shines in Heat. Clearly she’s been given carte blanche to let it rip by director Paul Feig, who staged her in another laugh riot comedy, Bridesmaids.
McCarthy is good, and so is Bullock, playing a stodgy FBI agent who has no life outside of her work. Where the movie shines, though, is how it’s been written by Katie Dippold and crafted by Feig.
The film just doesn’t seem to make any mistakes. Where it could get too cheeseball, it’s carefully reined in. Where the story needs heart, it is given heart judiciously. McCarthy’s family is pitch-perfect, too, with Bill Burr, Michal Rappaport, Jane Curtain, and more. (Nathan Corddry has a stellar scene where he is pronouncing “Narc” with his put-on thick Boston accent “Nahhc.” In another film, this may have been heavy-handed. Here, it had me on the floor.)
In fact, everybody is good. Not a supporting role is wasted under this sterling direction from Feig, who knows just the right notes to play. When the story needs to move forward with the “plot,” kudos to writer Dippold who manages this seamlessly. There’s no eye-rolling moment when you realize the story has to clunk forward a little further to get to more laughs – since it is woven into the central character’s lives, it never announces itself. The laughs permeate the film. Bravo.
The Place Beyond the Pines
That elusive “star quality” (cornball as that term sounds), is no doubt possessed by Ryan Gosling. I’m probably not supposed to like him because he’s become a heartthrob and all of that – but like Melissa McCarthy, I remember Gosling from way-back-when, and was impressed with him before all the twelve year-olds in Kazakhstan loved him, too.
Gosling’s looks, incidentally, are nicely touched on the nose and done away with at the open of Pines. “Handsome Luke” is the handle of his motorcycle-stunt-driving character. His abs are shown in the very first shot of the film. He is buttressed with tattoos, slick with sweat, and he walks out of his trailer and into a carnival. He puts on his jacket, reaches a tent where the crowd roars, and gets on his motorcycle. Along with two others, he heads into a spherical cage and starts doing a death-defying stunt. It’s all one shot. It’s one hell of a way to open a movie.
And that’s what it is, and that’s what it feels like from the get-go – an intense movie with a unique and instantly likeable bad-ass character. The story plunges headfirst. The drama kicks in; the conflict starts to build to a climax. Gosling’s character transcends. There is something here of legends, the elusive star dust of cinematic history is coalescing to form something truly great.
Then everything changes. A surprise twist throws the film into another direction. It’s a big risk for a film to do this, to trust the audience to hang in there valiantly as one main character gives way to another main character. We’ve invested in this first guy, we want to follow him through to the end, but now the page has been violently turned and we’re being foisted into another world.
That world has to work very, very well and be just as good – even better than the first – in order to work.
Unfortunately, what may be awesome and daring on the pages of the screenplay are very difficult to translate here, or so it seemed. Quentin Tarantino has been able to pull this off, this chapter-book-style of cinema, but he may be the exception, or, it may only work with his particularly verbose films, where there is enough in the dialog that constantly tie the chapters together to make it feel like one big story.
Here, the transition to a new chapter feels more compartmentalized. Even the style of the film seems to change. We are taken from this one-man-against-the-world, gritty story and thrust into what resounds of Copland. The whole crux of the second chapter is very different from the first, too, in that we’ve seen it before, many times. (Perhaps the only really standout in this section is Ray Liotta. There’s a scene where Ray has pulled over Bradley Cooper, and is leaning into his driver’s side window. Ray only leans just so much so that his eye is all that’s visible, and the edge of his face. It’s totally creepy and awesome.)
Part three devolves further. As the progression of the story dictates, we’re now in the future. The sons of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are our characters. The setting is high school. The film takes on even worse shading – it feels now like a troubled-teen movie, like something called “Disturbing Behavior” or “Cruel Intentions.” The ending lacks the punch it needs to satisfy such a great set-up, and after stretching our disbelief thin with a series of questionable coincidences. When we began organic and free with this motorcycle madman story, we now wind up in a tightly controlled world that must resolve itself under the maxims of the epic it aspires to be.
I actually got a chance to be involved, a little bit, in the making of this film by helping to find the final location. And in my own short-film-making / I-was-a-P.A.-once way, I know how incredibly challenging making a film is. The film deserves praise for its ambition and all that it accomplishes. And certainly for many people, I’m sure that Pines is going to succeed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or I hoped it would be something else.
Maybe I just wish that opening scene had never ended.