by Philip Price
You know those movies that are easily relegated to comfort food? You know, the ones where things that in the real world would be deathly serious (sometimes literally) and in a movie intended to be nothing more than fluff are dismissed without a second thought? I tend to like these movies more than I should. I enjoy them in a way that I get to turn a blind eye to the real issues of the world or even to thinking critically for a while, but when a movie that is made to make you feel this way can't help but make you constantly think about how awful it is it must be really bad. I mean, no one expects much nutrition from comfort food, but at least it goes down easy. There is neither anything fulfilling or fun about “Hot Pursuit,” a buddy/road trip comedy that was clearly created in the vein of “The Heat” from a few summers past by putting two female actors in the lead roles and hoping for the same results. While this was no doubt meant to be the watered down version with Reese Witherspoon playing up the naive, but dedicated cop routine that Sandy Bullock perfected while they flipped the script on the major comic relief of the piece by making her both a criminal rather than a veteran police officer as well as enlisting an actor known more for her looks than anything else. While Melissa McCarthy gets a fair amount of attention for her appearance Sofia Vergara gets that same attention for completely opposite reasons. With “Hot Pursuit,” Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard, is looking to sneak into the summer movie season on the typically quiet second weekend and provide a bit of alternative programming for those not interested in super hero team-ups, but even those who aren't fans of super heroes or comic book movies in general would have more fun at ‘Avengers’ than they would at a screening of “Hot Pursuit.” I've never watched TV’s “Mike & Molly,” but I feel like that would be the more apt comparison to a McCarthy project as “Hot Pursuit” is more akin to watching a punishing half-hour comedic sitcom that has been stretched as far as it can possibly go without the laugh track instructing us on when things are "supposed" to be funny.
To the extent that even the opening credit sequence is a poorly executed idea in establishing character traits, “Hot Pursuit” sets out to make us believe that Rose Cooper (Witherspoon) essentially grew up in the back seat of her father’s cop car. It was here she learned all the police codes, jargon and moral codes from her upstanding father. All of this and somehow Cooper still ends up as little more than a glorified secretary in the evidence room of her department. This montage over the opening credits wouldn't even be as bad if it wasn't so amateurishly done. There is nothing about it that feels genuine or even natural and those qualms extend to the entire film as it is a comedy with forced laughs. There are easy targets that writers David Feeney and John Quaintance seem to have drawn up from every cliché and every obvious mark in the book. For instance, the first big laughs post opening credits are intended to be that of Witherspoon's Cooper rattling off nicknames of the Cartel leader that has been taken into custody. We've already seen this in the trailers and the fact that another character finds this funnier than we do makes this not only lazy writing, but insanely desperate. Desperate to the point we can feel it oozing off the screen. I have to believe that both Witherspoon and Vergara know they aren't coming up with anything groundbreaking here, but are instead in the opposite category of barely scraping by despite their clear efforts to try and make this work. The actual plot doesn't really matter as it's all a bunch of contrivances in order to get these two characters on the road together and once that happens it's simply poorly executed joke followed by poorly executed sight-gag with Vergara's accent thrown in for back-up and embellished if necessary. What little story there is revolves around Cooper's uptight and by-the-book cop trying to protect the widow (Vergara) of a drug boss as they make their way through Texas dealing with both crooked cops and lowly henchmen. Hold on to your butts, folks!
It's difficult for me to dislike a movie and I mean outright hate it, but there is really no excuse for what has been presented here. Director Anne Fletcher has made four feature films prior to this and I thoroughly enjoyed at least three of them. I might even like her debut were I to actually sit down and give it a shot, but “27 Dresses,” “The Proposal” and even “The Guilt Trip” are each quality productions that work within the realm of formulaic, predictable and wholly unoriginal PG-13 comedies. They work because they take what they have and execute it well. In fact, they are perfect examples of movie comfort food in that they present these pretty people with beautiful, picturesque lives that you envy while including just enough drama to give it a hook and resolve within the next hour and a half. With “Hot Pursuit” seeming like another opportunity for Fletcher to do what she does best with these formulaic, predictable and unoriginal comedic scripts, it is a real mystery how this one slipped through her tricks to show its true colors. “Hot Pursuit,” in every sense of its existence represents those three adjectives I've repeated twice now to their fullest meaning. Not only can these elements be seen glaring at you through the desperate attempts at humor, but the whole affair just looks cheap and feels slapped together to the point that if the people producing this mess think this little of their audience, it's time for both them and us to move on. Unfortunately, there will be those that find this funny or at the very least, passable. At the screening I attended there was one middle-aged woman in particular who laughed at every expected beat as if she were sent there by the studio to make the rest of the audience feel better about wasting $10 on a ticket. To be fair, there are a few chuckles to be had here and there, but for a movie depending on laughs to keep its momentum going “Hot Pursuit” runs out of steam early and never finds its groove. If anything, this is the film equivalent of the person who can't dance still trying to tear up the floor and failing miserably; making everyone look at them for all the wrong reasons.
If “Hot Pursuit” is notable for anything though it is the fact it is a film produced, directed and starring women. It is essentially a movie for women, made by women (sans the two male screenwriters, which makes no sense) and is something of a rarity that Witherspoon is clearly hoping to make more of a common event. Last year alone, Witherspoon's production company helped the likes of “Gone Girl” and “Wild” – two Oscar nominated films, one of which starred Witherspoon – get made. Those films, while naturally more high-brow, made real strides in displaying the progress of women having a hand in a system typically dominated by men. “Hot Pursuit” destroys any good will Witherspoon and her colleagues had built so far. What is almost worse, is that this is a major regression for Witherspoon on a personal level as well. “Hot Pursuit” is the type of film I would have expected from her in the wake of her breakout role in “Legally Blonde.” “Hot Pursuit” would have nestled in fine with those cash grabs that the success of ‘Blonde’ gave Witherspoon opportunity to take, but I'd imagined she'd changed her tune as of late. “Water for Elephants,” “Mud,” “Wild,” “The Good Lie” and even a bit part in “Inherent Vice” seemed to point Witherspoon in a new direction, but “Hot Pursuit” is a return to a lesser state and Witherspoon deserves better. That isn't to say she isn't trying as she turns up her southern accent to about eleven and really goes for it. She is nothing if not committed to her character and remains so throughout this mess, willing to do whatever it takes for the laugh, sacrificing her beautiful perception and generally selling the chemistry between her and Vergara that feels as manufactured as the script. To that tune, both actors are fine enough while Vergara's only stake in this is to see how much her star will translate from “Modern Family” to the big screen. If there is any justice in the world, this will make zero dollars and I will never have to think about it again, but I have a feeling there will be more people like the suspected studio rep in this world than I care to believe there are.