Since the summer of 2014, Reese Witherspoon has put on one helluva show. The Reese-surgence never reached the heights of the McConaissance, but Witherspoon achieved a fascinating career makeover as a gritty actress (“Wild”) and a powerhouse producer (“Gone Girl”), clinching it all with a second Oscar nod and newfound authenticity as an artist.
The joyless and perfunctory “Hot Pursuit” would be a black mark on anyone’s résumé, but it’s an especially disheartening one for Witherspoon at this point in her career. We know she can do pretty much anything, yet here she is in an 87-minute bleating contest with Sofia Vergara, her looks disparaged by lazy comparisons to a “boy” or a “lesbian,” reciting words that aren’t so much “dialogue” as mere natter to fill up the silence.
If you’ve ever wondered what an Adam Sandler film starring Reese Witherspoon would look like, “Hot Pursuit” is it. Directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Guilt Trip,” “The Proposal”), the buddy comedy’s thankfully short on shart jokes, but there’s more than a hint here of Sandler’s punching-down insult comedy, which can only be described as “gender policing.” Witherspoon’s Officer Cooper isn’t feminine enough (because she happens to wear her hair in a policewoman’s bun), while Vergara’s Daniella is excessively girly, tottering around in six-inch stiletto heels while on the lam. Nonsensically, the former beauty queen is then repeatedly described by newscasters as a 45- or 50-year-old fugitive — because not even the most glamorous woman in Texas can avoid being called “ugly” by this movie.
Cooper and Daniella collide into one another during a shootout at the latter’s mansion. A pair of dirty cops kill Daniella’s husband, who had been planning to testify against his drug lord boss. While they attempt to finish the job by doing away with Daniella, too, another pair of assassins pursue the Colombian woman and whatever it is that she’s wheeling around in the white leather suitcase she refuses to leave behind. With Cooper’s boss convinced that his underling’s on the take, the two women flee from both the law and the rival bad guys.
The cop and the moll take their time becoming friends, a delayed gratification that becomes the only source of energy during their journey. In between stealing cars, changing clothes, and posing as lesbians — and yes, Witherspoon and Vergara kiss, though it’s not as pandering as it sounds — Cooper huffs about Daniella “concealing a communication device in your chestal area” while the sexy Latina makes fun of the officer’s “granny panties.”
Mostly, though, they just scream at each other, as if the entire set somehow got “ear-splitting” and “side-splitting” mixed up and decided one was just as good as the other. To add insult to (aural) injury, the film concludes with a fake empowerment message about how it’s not okay to underestimate beautiful women like Vergara — despite, again, the running gag about how her character looks like a crone.
As written by David Feeney and John Quaintance, neither character becomes likable or compelling. A bolder film might have tried to make anti-heroines out of Cooper and Daniella, particularly when the former beauty queen, later revealed to be a smuggler, decides that she won’t forgive her husband’s boss for what he’s done to her family. But Fletcher’s vision only includes noise and slurs, strung together with an obligatory redemption plotline. When the two women finally do warm to each other, signaled by Cooper finally revealing her first name to Daniella at the end of their bumpy road trip, it has all the emotional resonance of clipping one’s nails.
Fletcher has her two lead performers going so broad they can’t help but grate. Witherspoon and Vergara enjoy some comedic chemistry, and the outtakes that roll during the closing credits certainly indicate that the two enjoy each other’s company. But too little of their fun and camaraderie is in the actual movie, likely dissipated by the unfunny insults they’re forced to hurl at each other.
If Witherspoon hoped to reclaim her America’s Sweetheart tiara with this comedy, she’ll have to try again. “Hot Pursuit” has neither sweetness nor a heart.