Silver Screen: Hot Pursuit *
It would be so nice to be able to like Hot Pursuit, a comedy costarring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, produced by Witherspoon, and helmed by choreographer-turned-director Anne Fletcher. These are the female-driven comedy spoils Bridesmaids was supposed to have won, right?
Alas, Hot Pursuit is spoiled, not spoils. It’s a throwback both because it harks back to the action-comedies of the 1980s, and because the jokes feel at least a couple decades old, too. The movie spends eighty-five or so minutes building two broad stereotypes, and is then inordinately pleased with itself when it tears them down. We’re way ahead of you, Hot Pursuit.
The opening sequence introduces audiences to heroine Cooper, and also lets them know that no one in the movie will behave in any believable fashion. In a montage framed through the Plexiglas divider in a squad car, we watch blonde cutiepie Cooper grow up. See, her dedicated single-father/partnerless cop didn’t have anywhere to leave his little girl, so he strapped her car seat into the back of his cruiser. Seeing the baby crammed in next to old drunks and felons doesn’t exactly argue for Officer Cooper’s abilities as a cop or a father, but the movie repeatedly insists he was the best at both.
The baby in the back of the squad car becomes a little girl memorizing the police codes her father barks into his radio, then a teenager headed to prom next to her terrified-looking date. Eventually she grows up into the second Officer Cooper, played by Witherspoon.
Here Hot Pursuit makes the first of many baffling turns. After establishing Cooper’s lifelong study of and dedication to policework, Witherspoon herself is finally introduced as a mostly clueless, inept cop. Her last name has become a synonym for screwup ever since she mistakenly Tased the major’s teenage son and set him briefly on fire. Now she’s working a desk job in the evidence room and seems mostly clueless why boys (including awkward date Mike Birbiglia) as well as the other cops don’t like her.
It’s a bummer to see the smart, resourceful actress who helped shepherd the movie into existence be reduced to a bumbling mass of contradictory, unflattering stereotypes.
Cooper is offered a chance to earn her way back onto patrol when her police captain (John Carroll Lynch) assigns her to help a more competent male detective (Richard T. Jones) escort a drug runner (Felipe Riva) and his gaudy stereotype of a wife, Daniella (Sofia Vergara), to testify before they’re placed in witness protection. Cooper is offered the gig only because regulation stipulates a female officer be present when the witness... you know, has boobies and whatnot. This little jab at workplace discrimination would land a little harder if Cooper wasn’t demonstrably an actual screwup.
And indeed, her first order of business when hitmen come to gun down the witnesses is to accidentally lose her police radio and get her partner shot. Cooper escapes the fray with Daniella in tow, and Daniella escapes with a suitcase full of fancy shoes she refuses to abandon as they flee crooked cops and cartel killers.
Thus the movie shifts into mismatched buddy-comedy roadtrip mode, with Witherspoon’s uptight, emotionally stunted career woman banging hairdos with Vergara’s hotheaded Latina princess. Cooper is a less-interesting version of the feisty, determined comic persona Witherspoon has had down pat since Election, while Vergara is tasked with playing her Modern Family character transplanted into a screwball comedy without the balls.
The leading ladies might still have been able to make it work if they weren’t being shoved through a series of groan-worthy scenarios punctuated by stunningly unimaginative gags. They escape kidnapping by claiming Daniella is on her period (which totally freaks out those criminals, yuck!), then later distract a gun-toting farmer (Jim Gaffigan) by feigning lesbianism, as though that, too, were the grossest scenario possible.
Comedy is tricky because it requires great effort with the veneer of effortlessness. Hot Pursuit is an unfortunate miscalculation of that formula, with talented stars expending maximum energy to cover for lazy writing.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.