Fresh from her Oscar nomination for the drama “Wild,” the nearly 40-year-old Reese Witherspoon sadly retreats into the same disposable comedy she did in her 20s.
“Hot Pursuit” might as well be “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Legally Blonde 2” — a dopey star vehicle trying to cash in on the sheer spunkiness of its star.
This time Witherspoon partners with Sofia Vergara (TV’s “Modern Family”) in a buddy comedy/road movie. It’s a promising setup to have Witherspoon play a virginal, by-the-books cop against the imposing, materialistic Vergara and her inexhaustible supply of va-va-voom. But “Hot Pursuit” proves as contrived and familiar as its title (which was changed from “Don’t Mess With Texas,” probably because it was shot entirely in Louisiana).
It’s “The Heat” minus the R-rated edge. “Midnight Run” for “Twilight” moms.
Witherspoon portrays Cooper, whom we meet in a cute montage showing her growing up in the back of Dad’s police cruiser. Now a San Antonio officer, Cooper is trying to live up to her father while living down “the whole shotgun incident” that made her a joke among fellow officers.
Cooper lands a big break from desk duty when she joins a slick detective (Richard T. Jones) to escort a criminal and his wife, Daniella (Vergara), to testify in Dallas against a cartel kingpin. When the gig gets interrupted by masked assassins, Cooper and Daniella are forced to go on the run together, not entirely certain whom to trust.
Is their escape vehicle a swanky convertible? Of course it is. But that’s just one of dozens of bits “Hot Pursuit” (penned by sitcom veterans David Feeney and John Quaintance) lifts from similar films: The women get handcuffed together, don unflattering disguises and meet a handsome drifter (Robert Kazinsky) who falls for the prim Cooper.
Still, if the material used to fill in the formula could capitalize on the stars’ charisma, the proceedings might be less cringe-worthy. Instead, Witherspoon and Vergara simply yell at each other or improvise their way out of trouble by spewing silly lies. Good thing Vergara is spectacular at scolding, calling her partner a “tiny little weird robot” in her distinctive Colombian accent.
Director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”) really can’t figure out what the other characters should be doing.
And the plot gets muddled. Because of the constant media coverage of their getaway, the women must flee in one scene after they’re instantly recognized. But right after that they cause a huge commotion and no one notices. This is a movie that never pays attention to its own rules.
At least the TV reports provide a funny recurring gag. Each time a news anchor describes these fugitives, Witherspoon’s character is labeled a few inches shorter and Vergara’s a few years older.
Similarly, each time one thinks about “Hot Pursuit,” it gets a few laughs shorter and much, much older.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
Stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara are also producers on “Hot Pursuit.” Witherspoon tells the Los Angeles Times why:
“There wasn’t a lot of development going on for female comedy. Whatever you want to do, you’ve got to sort of do it yourself. I was a big fan of Sofia’s, and I thought it would be a good idea just to talk and see if she even wanted to do a movie together. We talked about a couple of funny ideas, and this is the one we decided to develop together.
“It really plays on our differences. I feel Sofia brings a particular perspective and a huge Latin American audience that’s rabid to see themselves on screen, and it’s way overdue considering how much Latin audiences show up to see films. She knows herself and her audience better than any actor I’ve ever worked with. What you don’t see you’ve got to make in the world. Nobody was developing a film like this.”