‘The Heat’s’ box-office success: How groundbreaking is it?

Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in a scene from "The Heat."
(Gemma La Mana / Associated Press)

The female-comedy renaissance epitomized by “Bridesmaids” added a new notch to its holster this weekend with the success of “The Heat.”

Featuring slapstick physical comedy and a plot involving a mysterious Keyser Soze-like drug dealer (I’ll admit I spent part of the movie secretly hoping Kevin Spacey would make an appearance), the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy ditty came up with a tidy $40-million opening on a budget of barely more than that. It was the biggest new opening of the week and is a bona fide hit for 20th Century Fox.

Of course, the talk of renaissance is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not as if there’s been a ton of such films put on the fast track since “Bridesmaids” achieved blockbuster status two years ago. Besides, female-led comedies, though admittedly rare, aren’t exactly new either, with a trajectory that goes from “Desperately Seeking Susan” to “Sister Act” to “Miss Congeniality.”


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In fact, much of the breathlessness over female comedies feels a little like the clueless reaction many of us in the media had when Tyler Perry was on a Madea-enabled hot streak a few years back. A new movie comes out and turns into a hit, and we express surprise and say we never saw it coming. Then a year later, another movie comes out and we do it all over again.

What’s actually new about “The Heat” is not the fact that comedies starring, and appealing to, women can become a major hit (and appealing to is not an understatement: As my colleague Rebecca Keegan writes, the audience this weekend was two-thirds female), but that these movies are now frequently be R-rated. Many of the female-led comedy smashes from earlier eras were of the PG-13 variety. Those that have become hits in recent years -- “Sex and the City,” “Bad Teacher,” “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” -- have been of the raunchier sort.

That’s a trend that isn’t limited to female-centric comedies, of course. The R-rating has been a primary feature of male-driven comedies in recent years as well, starting with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Borat” in the mid-2000s, and continuing this season with yet another crop.

The male side, needless to say, has not had the same batting average as the female one; for every “This Is The End” or “Ted” there’s a “Hangover Part 3” or a “Change-Up.” Like so many trends, the first few in a subgenre succeed because they’re novel, the next few can still work because they’re admirable mimics, and then many of the rest fail because they’re overkill. A foul-mouthed apocalyptic comedy with actors playing exaggerated versions of themselves feels fresh. But we don’t necessarily need a sequel or concept-extension (“This Is Really The End”?) to feel like we’ve gotten our fill.

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It’s here where the female-led comedy boom seems to be in such an important but precarious place. It’s worth noting that two of the crop of female-led R-rated comedies have shared a pair of specific elements -- director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy, who in addition to “The Heat” also collaborated on “Bridesmaids.” “Bad Teacher,” a third in the lot, involved different directors and stars, but it’s no surprise that Sony is also looking to duplicate its success by going for a sequel.

This category of movies has succeeded despite -- or because -- it hasn’t expanded in every lamebrained direction in the manner of the male pics. And we might well be better off if female-centric comedies (as in other areas of life) didn’t follow down the guys’ foolish path.



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