“Hot Pursuit” has all the trappings of a buddy comedy except that whole comedy part.
The pairing of Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara, like the recent Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart comedy “Get Hard,” is predicated on the distance between the two in height and culture. But, good lord, where are the jokes?
Witherspoon plays an uptight, low-ranking San Antonio police officer named Cooper. In her first major assignment since accidentally tasering a teenager (not the best timing for police brutality gags), she’s sent with a partner to protect a drug lord set to testify in court, along with his wife, Daniella (Vergara).
A shootout at their house leaves the husband dead and sends Cooper and Daniella on the run. They make an odd couple: an inexperienced but straight-as-an-arrow cop and a haughty, high-heeled trophy wife trailing her luggage.
The film, directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Guilt Trip”) and penned by “Ben and Kate” scribes David Feeney and John Quaintance, strains to find reason to keep the two on the lam. A corrupt police department excuse is cooked up and not one but two cell phones are destroyed.
As the two navigate the Texas countryside, they survive by exploiting the sexist underestimations of their male pursuers and those that get in their way. This is a promising enough conceit, and one wants to root for “Hot Pursuit,” the rare studio comedy led by women both in front and behind the camera.
But the slapstick of the film is woeful and Witherspoon and Vergara have little to do but repeatedly trade on the shallow qualities of their characters: Cooper’s uber-properness, Daniella’s prima donna. They distract easy-to-dupe men with excuses of “lady business” or by kissing each other. There are incredulous running gags about Vergara’s age and Witherspoon’s supposed homeliness.
For Witherspoon, in particular, it’s a dramatic comedown from the heights of Oscar season, where she was nominated for the wilderness redemption tale “Wild” and was a producer on David Fincher’s “Gone Girl.” She can be a fine comedic actress, but she’s best when the humor comes from the character (like the great Traci Flick of “Election”) rather than pratfalls.
“Hot Pursuit” feels like a comedy that forgot its comedian. Catch up, instead, with the similarly plotted but far superior “The Heat,” with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. That’s been one of the few recent excellent entries to the buddy comedy, a genre of seemingly simple chemistry that is nevertheless painstakingly elusive, leaving us to instead return, again and again, to classics like “Midnight Run” with Robert De Niro and the great Charles Grodin.
The best you can say for “Hot Pursuit” is that Witherspoon and Vergara, the “Modern Family” star, do seem like buddies. At least they have that half down.
AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr contributed to this report from Las Vegas.