New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer present a film directed by Anne Fletcher. Produced by Dana Fox, Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon. Written by David Feeney, John Quaintance. Music by Christophe Beck. Photographed by Oliver Stapleton, Edited by Priscilla Ned-Friendly. Production designed by Nelson Coates. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, Matthew del Negro, Michael Mosley, John Carroll Lynch.
Hot Pursuit is a buddy/crime comedy that wants to recall 2013’s The Heat, but would strongly prefer if you didn’t. That movie, which paired Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, created strong characters and gave them something to do. The jokes, however broad, were funny, and they stemmed organically from what we knew about these people. Hot Pursuit, on the other hand, puts Reese Witherspoon and Sophia Vergara into a series of slapdash comic situations that do not work, placing everything in service of a plot as lame-brained and cliché as they come. It’s so lazy and uninspired that it’s like on the first day of filming they handed out the poster instead of script pages.
Witherspoon plays Cooper, a second-generation Texas cop who drives her peers and supervisors crazy with her control freak, by-the-book rule quoting. Banished to the evidence room after an accidental tasering incident (this joke wouldn’t be funny even if it wasn’t a victim of really bad timing), Cooper is given a second chance when she’s asked to escort Daniella (Vergara), the wife of a key witness for a case against a powerful cartel boss. When two different sets of armed gunmen set on the house, both women go on the road and make the drive to Dallas, evading both hit men and police thanks to their newfound fugitive status. This opens up the movie’s ambition to be a middling road picture, and it’s directed with little care by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, Step Up).
The screenplay is by two sitcom veterans, which is evident in the way it supplies lame and arbitrary comedic setups. There’s the moment when the women have to pretend to be lesbians and cause a hick farmer (Jim Gaffigan) to shoot off his own finger. And the one where Daniella has to give the slip to some corrupt cops by portending some imminent lady business, and of course the men react like seventh graders. At one point, the two women have to sneak across a police barricade by pretending to be a deer, and then there’s a brief cocaine mishap that causes Cooper to talk real fast. Recurring gags refer to Vergara being old and Witherspoon being short and boylike, even though those things are glaringly not even close to true. So desperate is the movie that it hauls in a love interest for Cooper (Robert Kazinsky), as once again a movie slings the tired and insulting implication that a woman’s flaws are due to a lack of a boyfriend.
Much could be excused if the chemistry between Vergara and Witherspoon—the whole reason this movie exists—was good. But instead it’s shrill, one-note and unpleasant. Vergara plays the same spicy-Latina schtick that she makes her bread and butter on Modern Family, only made more screechy and nonsensical. Daniella is a wildly inconsistent character who, sometimes in the middle of scenes, switches from shrewd to stupid, shallow to deep, petty to noble, needy to independent, hateful to affectionate. Witherspoon, in an attempt to match Vergara’s assault on the eardrums and common sense, dials everything up to eleven, grossly overacting in a mannered and oppressive performance that possibly ranks as her absolute worst. Witherspoon is a gifted comedic actress in the right material, but her Cooper is a brittle collection of tics and facial expressions, not a person. You see every choice being made by the actress, and perhaps also every private thought she has about them.
Vergara was terrific (and understated) last year in Chef, but maybe she doesn’t have enough power yet to turn down things like this. What was Witherspoon thinking? She is one of Hollywood’s toughest and savviest players, and although she has often been ill-used, she’s been on a hot streak recently: an Oscar nomination for Wild, plus great supporting turns in Inherent Vice and Mud, and she produced Gone Girl. She produced this as well, but somehow I feel that something went seriously wrong. Often, actors will do quick studio movies to finance the things that really interest them. That’s most definitely what happened with Hot Pursuit, although rarely has a movie shown its cast thinking about other projects so visibly on screen.