Buddy Flop

Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon don't quite click in Hot Pursuit

It starts bad, and goes downhill from there.
It starts bad, and goes downhill from there.

OK, we get it. This is a girl-power film: female director, two female leads doing a riff on the usual male road trip-buddy movie. But that's no excuse for kicking it off with a cover of Tom Petty's great "American Girl" by Elle King that's just plain awful. It's off-putting and distracting, and gets Hot Pursuit off to a bad start. Unfortunately, except for some sporadically funny scenes, it doesn't get much better.

A cute sequence that shows a young girl pretty much growing up in the back seat of her daddy's police cruiser, and coming to learn and love what he does for a living, introduces us to the person who will become Officer Cooper (Reese Witherspoon). It's not until later, in a flashback, that it's revealed what went wrong with her dream, and why she's been demoted to running an evidence room and thought of as a geek by her fellow cops.

But she's determined to get past that "incident" (yes, it's funny), and her chance comes when, for no sensible reason (the first of so much of the script's nonsense), she's put back in the field to chaperone the wife of a testifying drug cartel member to witness protection.

Things go wrong, and they're deadly serious rather than funny. But this is a movie where moods change quickly, and the comedy soon comes back with a study of the two women — opposites who do not attract — at the center of it. Cooper follows orders, even if those orders concern protecting a woman who has no regard for the law, who wants only to stay fabulously rich and smartly dressed, even though the world she knows is falling down around her.

She is Daniella, played by Sofia Vergara with the same over-the-top approach she gives to Gloria on Modern Family. A big problem here is that the script appears to be satirizing stereotypes, but Vergara comes across as embracing the stereotypical Latina. She's too sassy, too tough, and, man, that accent is exaggerated! One of statuesque Daniella's first lines upon meeting the diminutive Cooper (OK, the height-difference business is kinda funny) is, "You're like a little dog that I can put in my purse."

Witherspoon, on the other hand, has the right idea. Her use of humor is believably self-deprecating instead of forcibly so, the way Vergara plays it. Witherspoon also shows off a flair for slapstick. In a scene where she is accidentally doused (that's "doused," not "dosed") with a huge amount of cocaine, she goes so bonkers, she delivers about three pages of dialogue in less than a minute. Yes, more funny stuff.

But before long, repetition sets in. The script gives us two women whose lives are in danger but just don't like each other. They get over it and become close, then don't like each other all over again, and again, and again. A running gag of Daniella lugging around a heavy suitcase gets tiring, and the payoff isn't worth it.

Yet there are moments when you think that the film might finally take shape and fly. A sequence in which Cooper starts speaking Spanish, and the women have a "conversation," is really well done, as is a point where, after their situation has lightened, everything gets serious. It's only a brief interlude from the silliness, but then, much too soon after that turn, another serious turn is added. It's a structural mistake in the script, one that comes so late, it doesn't allow the film to recover from it. The happy ending is one that isn't earned, and isn't at all satisfactory. ♦

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