You really can’t sustain a comedy, even at 88 short minutes, on just two jokes — even worse, two running gags. But that’s exactly what the new female buddy bomb Hot Pursuit wants to do. Under-utilizing its two leads, the script by David Feeney (TV’s New Girl) and John Quaintance (Aquamarine) decides that the best way to elicit laughs out of the audience is to constantly mention Officer Rose Cooper’s (Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon) diminutive stature and reluctant witness Danielle Riva’s (SAG winner Sofia Vergara) ethnicity and age. Even with a female filmmaker behind the lens (Anne Fletcher, responsible for Step Up and The Proposal), the screenplay is nothing more than a sexist screed which reduces gender to a reactive remnant of a more chauvinistic, paternal society.
Indeed, after a sweet opening which shows us where Rose gets her love of law enforcement, the film falls flatter than a ’50s sitcom layer cake. The story turns into a series of shrill, inconsequential sequences, each one set up to make our actresses look stupid and instill a feeling of superiority in all who watch it. We are supposed to giggle at Rose’s inability to control her “prisoner”, Danielle’s reluctance to go against the men who murdered her husband, and the duo’s less-than-thrilling road movie mannerisms. When you consider the clichés relied upon, the throwback nature to the way the women are treated, and the over-emphasized drawls each uses, you wind up with a cartoon, and a very unfunny one at that.
Narratively, Hot Pursuit is nothing new. The government is after drug kingpin Vincent Cortez (Joaquin Cosio) and decides that the best way to catch him is to turn one of his underlings, Felipe Riva (Vincent Larsesca). When Det. Jackson (Richard T. Jones) comes to collect him and take him to testify, a group of assassins show up. The result is a bunch of dead bodies, with our two leads — Felipe’s wife Danielle and Jackson’s joke of a “partner”, Rose — left standing. Naturally, they are accused of the killings and have to go on the run, which gives the movie its main impetus. As they try to avoid whoever is after them, clear their names, and make the four and a half hour drive to Dallas, Vergara flashes her ultra-white teeth and bilingually trashes Witherspoon. As for Witherspoon, she takes it all in sloppy slapstick stride, blurting out cop-speak while hoping for more heartfelt reactions.
This makes Hot Pursuit an adolescent boy’s idea of what two older women do when there aren’t men around to make the world safe for them to go shopping. It’s two ladies out of their league, professionally, psychologically, and personally who are then reminded of this arcane, outdated assessment over and over again. They’re not heroines; they’re harpies, hurling epithets and PG-13 level insults at each other while the plot constantly reminds them of their size, shape, sexuality, and smarts. If ever a movie could be accused of bullying, it would be this one. There’s so many levels of shaming, so many triggers tossed in for nothing more than an easy punchline, that you wonder why anyone in 2015 would think this is anything other than an insult.
If The Heat and Bridesmaids proved anything, other than Melissa McCarthy’s viability as a big screen presence, it’s that women don’t have to be reduced to stereotypes to make audiences laugh. Instead, those films uses stereotypes as a means of commentary, while providing depth and dimension to avoid such simplistic classification. By contrast, Hot Pursuit is too dumb to deal with such intricacies. Instead, it trots out of a basic formula (sexpot vs. shrimp) and then decides it’s done enough. By the end, when we are supposed to be rooting for Rose and Danielle, all we can see are the near-intolerance simmering under the surface (fiery Latina vs. bumbling Southern belle).
This is a movie that believes detailed discussions of menstruation and awkward feigned lesbianism are the stuff of solid satire. It argues that, even though are female leads are outwardly as dumb as a box of hammers, they’re hiding an inner resilience that they must learn to rely on. In between, why not have our pair flop out of windows, pratfall around various locations, and amplify the already misguided characterization the script provides. Even when there’s an attempt at backstory (as when Rose falls for a man wearing an ankle monitor), it all ends up in pointless pandering. This is a film for viewers who’ve never ventured past Witherspoon’s work in Sweet Home Alabama or Vergara’s Modern Family fussiness.
All the problems go back to Feeney and Quaintance. They’re so reliant on the derivative that they miss many obvious opportunities to avoid it. This could have been a winner, a chance for two actresses known for certain onscreen personas to switch things up a bit and play against type — that is, if Vergara was the policewoman and Witherspoon the volatile vixen. Of course, that also has its issues (as when John Belushi and Dan Aykrord played versions of each other in the underrated dark comedy, Neighbors), but at least it would be something different. Hot Pursuit offers no such novelty. Instead, it’s all borderline bigotry against gender and race, without any witty criticism at all.
Left to their own devices, one imagines that Witherspoon and Vergara could come up with something more fresh, more clever, and more endearing than what the script has to offer. Without such adlibs, Hot Pursuit is a dire, depressing experience. It clearly needed more jokes than the two it provides.