So, I have a theory that most (if not all) movies have some sort of therapeutic value embedded in the narrative, or the watching-experience more generally. That is, going to the movies can communicate lessons of psychological health in the same way that the therapeutic process aims to do so. That’s even the case for seemingly silly, mindlessly fun comedies like “The Heat.”

Before I continue with the therapeutic value point I want to pause to briefly give the movie my endorsement. I greatly enjoyed “The Heat.” When it comes to my emotional reaction, you know, how many thumbs up I am willing to offer it I’ll simply say: It was very funny. The experience was pleasant in a simple and stable way like all thoroughly well-done comedies - the story breezed along. I laughed frequently, and felt fully engaged almost perpetually. And, in the end, I was surprised by how much I liked it, and how sad I was that it was over. Two thumbs-up. But not three. I reserve three thumbs-up for all things Christopher Nolan.

Anyway, I digress. Back to therapeutic value. Imagine that there are rules to healthy living; there’s even a skillset that underlies the capacity to successfully implement these rules. Therapy is about explaining these rules and teaching the ways in which they can be implemented. One of the most important “rules” to understand and follow is the one about meaningful relationships. What if I said that loneliness and isolation is a force that wilts our minds, makes us miserable, and even causes us to die sooner than we otherwise would? What if I further postulated that intentionally pursuing and carefully crafting relationships is the most central predictor of true health/happiness (and even success) that exists.  For the record, I’m reasonably confident that at least part of this claim is supported empirically/scientifically; and whatever part of what I just said isn’t supported by research at least makes intuitive sense…

Anyway, I saw “The Heat” as having therapeutic value regarding this social connection issue.

The narrative centers on two female protagonists, a cop and an FBI agent, and how they team up to bring down a bad-ass drug dealer. In one corner you have the Sandra Bullock character, and in the other you have the Melissa McCarthy character. As I alluded to just a few sentences ago, the movie is less about this investigation than the fact that they co-construct a deep, unwavering bond between each other (which, in turn, will make both of them happier, healthier, and more successful in their respective lives, at least in theory…according to my vaguely cited research findings).

Allow me to lay out this sub-textual story of connection and the way in which both characters seem to psychologically benefit. At the start of the movie they are disconnected from those around them. This is the case for different reasons, but the outcome is the same – they’re both lonely and, in turn, not particularly happy (though they're both clearly good at what they do).  At the end of the film, they’re happy, primarily because they’ve formed a sisterhood with each other, and an improved social skillset that will presumably allow them to better connect to and expand their social support network (fancy word for ‘friends, family, romantic partner, acquaintances).

So, how does this process unfold? Glad you asked. Well, in-between the humorous moments and amusing dynamics, both Melissa and Sandra use their intensifying interpersonal connection to each other to fix social deficits of what I’ll term 'arrogant aloofness' and 'excessive anger' (qualities underlying undesirable response sets to conflicts and social exchagnes) with the skills of social awareness (a form of knowledge) and unconditional positive regard (an attitude about relating to others).

Sandra (the character played by Sandra know what I mean) isn’t well-liked by her colleagues, and it’s keeping her from the promotion she so desperately desires (and deserves). The main reason for this interpersonal friction is her arrogant aloofness toward others. She's not really that aloof or arrogant but the movie creates a reality in which that's her reputation. It's more of a plot device that explains why her colleagues don't like her, which apparently the movie has to say for some reason...versus a consistent facet of the personality that Bullock aims to embody.....same for the Melissa character and her anger problems). But while I'm trying to capture what seems like the interpersonally challenged thing about her, I'll add that it's a sort of autistic-icky tone-deafness to social cues that is well illustrated in the drug dealer-club sequence. In these scenes Sandra gets into undercover mode and tracks a drug dealer through a trendy night club. But she has no idea how loudly her attire and mannerism scream “I’m-out-of-place…and a bit nerdy…and probably an FBI agent.”

Melissa helps. She not-so-gently informs Sandra of her self-presentation problem and helps Sandra to adapt by teaching  her how to dress and “hold herself” like all the other club-goers.

***Putting on my film critic’s cap for a minute, did anyone else notice that the long-sleeve shirt that Sandra wore in the bathroom scene of this sequence, of which Melissa promptly cut into a t-shirt, was actually converted into a stylish top in the next scene…!).

On the flip side of the coin, there’s Melissa. She’s equally disconnected from those around her, and it fuels her anger-fire. There’s a scene early on in which she mocks her superior, Captain Woods, in an over-reactive, rant-y manner, marked by an extended game of “where are the Captain’s really tiny balls.”

Sandra helps. In a workman-like manner she injects her Melissa-interactions with a gentle, warm and unconditionally positive regard, which serves to gradually assuage Melissa’s free-floating anger-fest. For instance, there’s a scene in which Melissa solidifies an agreement to be Sandra’s partner in crime under the condition that Sandra embarrasses herself by publicly expressing her need for Melissa’s help (the scenes are lot funnier than I’m making them seem, trust me). If Melissa helped Sandra to address her arrogant aloofness through a reality-check on socially acceptable behavior in a night club, than Sandra aided Melissa in curbing her excessive anger by providing the secure-attachment demeanor that a healthy parent provides a child.

Although the ‘arrogant aloofness’ and ‘excessive anger’ are merely one of many disconnecting qualities that the characters' respectively show, and even though these disconnecting qualities are merely a fraction of what are generally likable and adaptive personalities/aura’s, these identified “social weaknesses,” I would argue, underlie much of the movie’s humor. Sandra is constantly alienating herself with unintended haughtiness, and Melissa is perpetually mad at the world, and these proclivities often emerge in inexplicable and quirky ways to elicit laughs. 

And the burgeoning intimacy that we as an audience witness between Sandra and Melissa is a powerful interpersonal process. Particularly during the second half of the film as they both simultaneously lower the defenses of arrogance and anger that had been maintaining  their lonely, disconnected modes of living. This enables them to get sufficiently comfortable and trusting of each other so as to genuinely communicate: “I see you, I know you, I like and accept you.” This isn’t said literally mind you, this is implicitly but powerfully stated during their numerous bonding events (e.g. teaming up to interrogate a variety of perpetrators, getting much-too-wasted at a bar, escaping near-death experiences).

Further ‘therapeutic value’ can be mined from this female buddy-buddy movie when one considers the overly-simplistic but approximately-realistic backstory to each character’s ‘distancing’ tendencies. The movie explains Sandra’s arrogant aloofness as a by-product of being a foster child. She was neglected as a kid, the logic,, which made her expect rejection as an adult, which made the aloofness a desirable (though unconscious) choice that her personality continued to make across social situations so as to avoid the rejection she assumed would happen. Melissa’s unfiltered, unblinking awareness of social cues helped to expand Sandra’s awareness of this patterned choice…so that she could start to give herself a chance to succeed socially. And the movie explains Melissa’s excessive anger as a temporary reaction of displaced emotion stemming from resounding familial rejection. In a nutshell, when Melissa imprisoned her own brother for drug dealing, her large, overly-emotional family effectively disowned her. This development was unfair and, of course, infuriating (I'm guessing this is how Melissa would feel because it's how I would feel in her shoes), and if that wasn't enought, the disownment stonewalled her into suppressing it. Emotion needs to be expressed, so Melissa’s psyche (subconsciously) seemed to chose to re-route the anger toward a diffuse, generalized 'other' (a.k.a whoever happened to be standing in her vicinity, namely Sandra). Sandra’s kind-hearted, accepting touch provided the emotional validation that Melissa needed to cathartically decompress.

So, to review, both characters demonstrated personality tendencies that created distance in their relationships, and these qualities perhaps powered many of the film’s punch-lines. Sandra and Melissa also demonstrated more adaptive, skillful qualities like social awareness and positive regard that “treated” each others' social weaknesses of foster home-induced guardedness and family-freeze out displaced rage. This process unfolded because of the meaningful bond that was intentionally and skillfully co-constructed, a process that is both promoted and taught in effective therapy.

If you see “The Heat” you’ll laugh but you’ll also get a refresher/primer in the social-connection rule of healthy living.

About the Author

Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., is a forensic and clinical psychologist.

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