I still think there’s a lot to appreciate about this film, and a lot of reason not to write it off from the outset. For a start, it’s from the director of Bridesmaids (2011), a very likeable comedy that was generous to its largely female cast, and the TV show Freaks and Geeks, which was unjudgemental about high school cliques and launched the careers of many of today’s comedy stars. The writer worked on Parks and Recreation, one of my very favourite TV comedies of recent memory, and it stars a number of alumni of the often very funny Saturday Night Live (including the wonderful Jane Curtin in a small role). And I remain very happy with the idea of taking a genre as hackneyed as the buddy cop film and giving it a gendered twist. In fact, I rather enjoyed the trailer to be honest, so I thought it might be worth a couple of hours of my time. It’s just that, as a finished film, it feels stale and underwhelming and lacks real laughs.
It trades in the most reductive stereotypes for a start, though I appreciate that’s not exactly a huge criticism for a comedy, and yet some tiny helping of subtlety wouldn’t go amiss. As Boston cop Mullins, Melissa McCarthy is just relentlessly full of physical abuse and pushiness, while Sandra Bullock’s Special Agent Ashburn is prudish and smugly supercilious. That these two diametrically opposed characters should have to work together is surely chapter 1 in Writing a Buddy Cop Film for Dummies, but even that text might suggest leavening the good cop/bad cop roleplaying with something a little bit sympathetic and human to these portraits. Sure, there’s a bit of backstory to explain away their respective behaviours (this is where the always-excellent Curtin comes in), but it’s tediously predictable.
And that’s the thing: the laughs just aren’t there. Sure, there are some, but it’s not sustained, and it doesn’t come from anything that feels like real understanding of these characters as humans, just as excuses for them to do ‘things which are funny’. They get drunk together and dance at a dive bar, but without any apparent spontaneity or fun; they aggressively trade insults, but it’s just to illustrate their different characters; they hang a drug dealer off a building to get information from him, but then drop him by mistake, and I just don’t know what that’s supposed to be (empowering? funny?). A lot of the comedy in fact seems to be solely in the idea of putting women in the place of the genre’s more familiar boorish, lawless men, but it needs more of a twist than that.
There’s a lot of plot too — something about taking down a notorious drug lord — and it feels as if it’s lifted wholesale from another chapter of the genre textbook. It’s not like the intricacies of this are particularly important to the film, but when the plot is quite so forgettable, it makes the jokes that hang off it easy to forget too. Added to this that the film is presented in a grungy neo-70s style, complete with vintage funk music soundtrack, and it doesn’t feel particularly fresh on the whole (even the 2004 Starsky and Hutch managed to feel more up-to-date, but perhaps the mid-2000s were a high-water mark for American comedy).
In truth, I wanted to like this film, still do want to like this film, but I feel let down. The potential was there, it just lost focus in the execution. Which is, after all, probably something I should have been clued into, given the hilariously bad airbrushing of McCarthy on the UK poster (the image with this review is of the US poster). ‘It could have been worse’ isn’t really a recommendation, but I remain in hope for future film collaborations by Feig and co.
Director Paul Feig; Writer Katie Dippold; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Sandra Bullock; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013.