Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Film Review - THE HEAT and FRANCES HA

Traditionally, the summer movie season isn’t overly generous to female-oriented films. Although hits like The Devil Wears Prada and Bridesmaids sent multi-hundred-million-dollar wake up calls to the industry, change has taken its damn time. However, standing out amongst this season’s rampant run of testosterone-fuelled blockbusters are two surprising new releases of very different pedigrees; the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy joint The Heat and Noah Baumbach’s indie return-to-form Frances Ha. Each offers plenty of value to both the fairer sex and anyone looking for smart, funny, well-crafted entertainment.

Fresh from the uproariously brilliant triumph of Bridesmaids, director Paul Feig’s XX-chromosome buddy cop comedy The Heat is a refreshingly breezy blast of free-wheeling comic energy that manages to make a tired routine shine. Featuring Bullock as a prissy, career-oriented FBI agent who’s reluctantly paired with McCarthy’s foul-mouthed Boston police officer while hunting a mysterious drug kingpin, the film blows dust off its reliable genre tropes by exploiting the off-beat chemistry of its headliners. Beginning as insufferable misfits, the characters’ unlikely friendship and professional bond - like the picture itself - starts off kinda rough before gradually finds its footing and confidence.

Working from Katie Dippold’s (Parks and Recreation, MADtv) quirky screenplay, Feig knows the central plot isn’t that interesting or important and instead, like his last film, focusses on staging hilariously bizarre diversions for his actresses to run wild with. Chief among these highlights are extended sequences including a drunken night at a dive bar populated by senior citizens, a run-in with a restaurant choking victim and multiple volatile encounters with McCarthy’s heavily-accented white trash family. It’s these masterfully-exploited sidesplitting scenarios that really energize The Heat, and bring out the cast’s best.

It also never hurts to boast two of Hollywood’s most endearing comediennes at their most nutty and committed. Channeling her Miss Congeniality protagonist, Bullock exudes rigid crazy cat lady intensity. It’s fun to watch her torn from her comfort zone, fighting to control a cyclone of chaotic lunacy. McCarthy takes some getting used to – her early scenes are a little too gratingly obnoxious – yet once she has a partner to play off of, she hits her stride. Unequivocally courageous in her willingness to sell a gag at any cost, she’s brash and unexpectedly sweet, charming Bullock and the audience in equal measure. They’re such a winning team that, frankly, the idea of watching them solve more cases in the future isn’t an entirely unwelcome prospect.

If Bullock and McCarthy skillfully deliver the broad laughs, Greta Gerwig, in Baumbach’s remarkable Frances Ha, does something even more difficult: she makes us chuckle knowingly (and occasionally uncomfortably) at our own very human inadequacies and fears. Her Frances, an aimless down-on-her-luck New York dancer, flits through her existence with all of the direction of a Ping-Pong ball in the wind. Growing apart from her best friend/personal rock (Mickey Sumner), she leapfrogs haphazardly from one eccentric roommate to another, abandoning her lackadaisically-pursued dreams of success and devolving into an “undateable” lost cause.

Beautifully capturing the aimless frustrations of the current late-20s/early-30s generational experience, Gerwig and Baumbach’s script walks a genuinely fine line with the title character. As hopelessly loveable as she is maddening in her apathy, Frances is a character we can’t help but root for because we’ve all felt, at some point, exactly as she does. Wearing a mask of cheery, insecure fragility, the actress has never been more mesmerizing. It’s a very special performance in a very special film.

Visibly influenced by vintage Woody Allen (predominantly Manhattan) and the French new wave, Baumbach thankfully tones down the snark that overwhelmed his last two efforts, Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding. And in doing so, he allows us to relate to the unconventional characters, achieving, in the process, something richer and more truthful. Frances Ha isn’t just witty and perceptive, it’s leaves you absolutely beaming.

The Heat: 3.5 out of 5
Frances Ha: 4.5 out of 5

*Originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.

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