Thursday, May 7, 2015

Everything's Dumber in Texas: "Hot Pursuit" tags very few laughs

Hot Pursuit (2015)
87 min., rated PG-13.

If you thought you always wanted to see Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara pair up in a distaff studio-comedy version of "Midnight Run," temper your expectations more than a tad. It's not that the proposition of Witherspoon and Vergara sharing every frame together sounds unpromising, but how it's carried out in odd-couple romp "Hot Pursuit" is third-rate at best. Director Anne Fletcher (who has directed "27 Dresses," "The Proposal" and "The Guilt Trip") and TV sitcom writers David Feeney and John Quaintance probably aspired to just entertain a wide audience with a breezy, lightweight crowd-pleaser but seem to be out to lunch with this limp, insultingly dopey mediocrity. "Outrageous Fortune" or "The Heat," this wishes. Not even Bette Midler and Shelley Long or Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock could turn water into wine with this dud of a script.

Literally growing up in the backseat of a police cruiser on her now-late cop father's ride-alongs, Officer Rose Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) does not have a well-regarded reputation at her San Antonio precinct. She's clueless, infamously known for tasering and setting aflame a dude for shouting "Shotgun," but intensely hyper-focused and by-the-book, spouting police 10 codes and scribbling down details in her notepad. Thrilled at the chance to get out of the evidence room and go out into the field, Cooper is assigned to escort Daniella Riva (Sofía Vergara), the curvaceous, materialistic Colombian wife of a mobster who's testifying against a drug cartel kingpin. But once Cooper gets to the Rivas' mansion, she is ambushed by two sets of heat-packing criminals, killing a federal marshal and Riva's husband. En route to Dallas to get the now-widowed Riva to witness protection, the two ladies go on the lam as they discover they've been wrongfully accused as fugitives. Will they learn to work together? 

Seeing night-and-day characters—the uptight one in uniform, the girly one a diva who wheels around her suitcase full of jewel-encrusted stilettos—have to coexist together to go on the run is one high-concept comedy staple that has been seen countless times before, so it's usually up to the writing and the actors to punch the material up a few notches. There's no lack of trying by the female performers, both of them producers who must have jumped at the chance to work with one another, but if you have seen the theatrical trailer or TV ads for "Hot Pursuit," you have already seen the movie for free. An amalgam of action-comedy, mismatched-buddy comedy, and road movie, the plot becomes increasingly dumbed-down and aggravating, contriving up slapstick situations for laughs that aren't there. It's not dispiriting that said slapstick situations are sitcommy, but that the slapstick situations just aren't that funny or clever. Not once but twice, their only two cell phones get smashed to forehead-slapping effect. Cooper and Riva jump head-first out of the window of a tavern bathroom. They both get doused in 42 kilos of cocaine, only to send Cooper into a frantic, motormouthed frenzy. They argue in Spanish on a busload of sightseeing senior citizens. To get off the property of a gun-toting farmer (Jim Gaffigan), the two women pose as veterinarians who also happen to be lesbian lovers, so they must make out and grope each other, of course. On paper, this doesn't pass for great comedy, and how it plays out is even less so. A bit where Cooper dresses up as a man ("Why are you dressed as 'Jose Bieber'?" Riva jokes) never really takes off. There is also a running joke at their expense, as the newscasters keep misconstruing Cooper's height and Riva's age, and Riva calls Cooper a "boy" and makes fun of her tiny size on a number of occasions. Relatively speaking, the film's apparent height of hilarity comes when the women avoid a police checkpoint by crossing through a field underneath a deer hide and fail to mimic the sounds a deer makes.

Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara are on different planes as actresses. Witherspoon is multifaceted in both drama and comedy, having one Oscar win (2006's "Walk the Line") and one nomination (2014's "Wild") under her belt, and has become a heavy-hitting producer; Vergara has been nominated four times each for a Golden Globe and Emmy for her irresistible work as Gloria Pritchett on TV's "Modern Family" and besides putting in low-key work in 2014's "Chef," she's either been made a shrill punchline, overdoing her Colombian accent, or a shrill villainess with machine-gun jubblies . . . overdoing her Colombian accent. Witherspoon was biting perfection as the overachieving Tracy Flick in "Election" and so winningly adorable as the unexpectedly smart, pink-loving Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde," but the writing was a lot sharper in both cases. Here, speaking in a cartoony Texan accent as the anal-retentive Officer Cooper, she's a game player, being made the butt of many jokes and asked to play a silly, manic nitwit, which is just beneath her. It doesn't help that when we first meet Cooper, she's chasing down her Christian Mingle date (Mike Birbiglia) because he wanted to leave. Yes, Witherspoon is playing one of those women who can't find a man until she lets her hair down, figuratively and literally; we also know this because she wears granny panties and not lacy lingerie. The va-va-voomy Vergara almost gets a pass, considering she hasn't received top billing in a movie before, and her Spanglish yappiness and Lucille Ball-like wailing are fine for a couple of giggles, but her shtick does eventually get louder and tired. Unfortunately, Witherspoon and Vergara don't make the most effective comic foils because neither grounds the other too much; they bicker and scream at one another, talk about their feelings and then bicker and scream some more. Based on the obligatory blooper reel during the end credits, these two seem to have gotten along and had fun on set, but there is no evidence of sincere, worthwhile chemistry. The supporting cast is of no help, standing out of the way of its leads. Robert Kazinsky has a scruffy charm about him as Randy, an alleged convict who gets matched as Cooper's love interest, but he gets kicked to the curb, only to show up in a tacked-on epilogue scene. Jim Gaffigan is not used to his strengths, appearing in one scene to get teased by our heroines and then have his finger shot off.

In spite of the enthusiastic efforts of its two stars, "Hot Pursuit" is just lame, forced and annoying, wheezing of desperation and filled with too many strained jokes that fall flat. Okay, so not every beat is seen coming a mile away; there is more to Daniella Riva than she lets on at first. A couple of other twists involving crooked cops are in store, too, but no explanation is given as to why. At 87 minutes, the film is at least brisk and short, if anything, but then again, so is a walk around the block. Anne Fletcher's direction is so nondescript and broad that "Anne Fletcher" might as well be a pseudonym for Andy Fickman ("Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2," "Parental Guidance") or Dennis Dugan ("Grown Ups 2"). There has to be more than slamming together two likable ladies, who virtually run around screaming and figuratively flailing their arms around, and hoping the whole project floats on its own. Finding belly laughs in the woefully misbegotten "Hot Pursuit" is as hopeless as finding a four-course meal in a desert. 

Grade: D + 

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