Friday, May 8, 2015

Hot Pursuit: Stone cold

Hot Pursuit (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, sexual candor, profanity and drug references

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.15

In the space of one short month at the end of last year, Reese Witherspoon starred in an inspirational drama about Sudanese refugees settling in Missouri (The Good Lie); collected a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her persuasive portrayal of solo hiker Cheryl Strayed (Wild); and delivered a droll supporting performance as a snarky deputy district attorney in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s admittedly weird — but oddly compelling — handling of a notorious Thomas Pynchon novel (Inherent Vice).

Worried about their ability to remain on the down-low, given that every TV newscast has
been leading with their photographs, Daniella (Sofía Vergara, left) nonetheless assures
Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) that this particular sales clerk won't be staring at her face.
So ... what does Reese — a previous Oscar winner, let us not forget, for her memorable turn as June Carter, in Walk the Line — do for a follow-up?

Something rilly, rilly nifty, right?

If only.

I’ve no idea why high-caliber talents such as Witherspoon attach themselves to low-rent junk such as Hot Pursuit. There’s no way David Feeney and John Quaintance’s misbegotten script ever could have shown promise. Nor has it been dragged to life by director Anne Fletcher, which merely proves that the pudding was rancid to begin with; she did far better with previous comedies such as 27 Dresses, The Guilt Trip and most particularly The Proposal.

Fletcher clearly knows funny, and Witherspoon can do funny. So can co-star Sofía Vergara, as she has quite ably demonstrated during six seasons (and counting) of television’s Modern Family.

No, the blame here belongs solely to the numb-nuts script, which plays like a bottom-of-the-barrel television sitcom episode. No surprise there, since Feeney is a veteran of slapstick (but successful) TV work such as New Girl, According to Jim and 2 Broke Girls, while Quaintance has struggled with less successful rom-coms such as Perfect Couples, Whitney and Ben and Kate.

So if this big-screen gal-pal comedy looks, walks and quacks like a TV duck, there’s ample reason.

Mind you, I’ve no objection per se to dumb and aggressively loud TV comedies; I’ve laughed plenty hard during random episodes of New Girl. (2 Broke Girls ... not so much.) But there comes a point when it too frequently feels as if the stars in such material are trying to wring laughter from predictably stupid plots and dead-on-arrival one-liners.

That’s most definitely the case with Hot Pursuit.

Witherspoon stars as uptight, super-straight-arrow Texas cop Cooper, who goes by her last name and quotes department regulations with the crisp authority of a spelling bee champion. Trouble is, despite being the doting daughter of a departed and much-admired police officer, she over-reacts in the field and has been demoted to desk duty.

Until now.

When mob underling Felipe Riva (Vincent Laresca) agrees to testify against his way-dangerous drug lord boss (Joaquín Cosio), Cooper is asked to join the detective (Richard T. Jones) assigned to escort the snitch to a waiting Dallas courtroom. Cooper’s boss (John Carroll Lynch) wants to do everything properly, and that means granting Felipe’s wife a female police presence.

Unfortunately, the wife in question turns out to be Daniella (Vergara), a hot-tempered, hotter-blooded Colombian trophy wife who — for openers — refuses to leave the house without several dozen pairs of shoes.

Cooper has little time to process this bit of Imelda Marcosian insanity; within seconds of her arrival at the Riva home, guns are blazing from two sets of assassins. Cooper and Daniella manage to escape, but only just barely, and the latter quite reluctantly.

“Look at you!” Daniella sneers, to her savior. “You’re teeny-tiny; you’re like a little dog that I can put in my purse!”

Things continue in much the same vein, as our mismatched female companions struggle to stay at least a few steps ahead of certain death.

OK, yes; plenty of easy laughs can be — and are — milked from this Mutt ’n’ Jeff pairing. The movie is on fairly safe ground as long as Feeney and Quaintance give Daniella sarcastic put-downs, which Vergara snarls in Witherspoon’s direction with well-timed aplomb.

And yes, the 5-foot-1 Witherspoon does look toy-like, standing in the shadow of 5-foot-7 Vergara, who looms even taller in her character’s laughably crazy high heels. Similarly, Cooper’s repressed, undersexed, forever anxious demeanor is an amusing contrast to Vergara’s outlandishly aggressive, hot-tamale act. By all appearances, they make what should be a richly comedic pair.

Trouble is, Feeney and Quaintance haven’t the faintest idea what to do with their characters. And that too frequently leaves Witherspoon and Vergara struggling for air, as they constantly sink beneath the smothering embrace of contrived and stupid set-pieces.

I’m hard-pressed to choose a worst, given so many possibilities, but the most desperately clumsy moment probably occurs when Daniella attempts to persuade a gun-toting rancher that she and Cooper are lovers. Major ouch, all around.

The plot moves in wholly predictable directions, starting with “surprise” bad guys who are blindingly obvious long before their evil ways are exposed. That said — and to be fair — Feeney and Quaintance do deliver one reasonably clever twist in the final act.

Robert Kazinsky also adds some amusing sparkle as Randy, a low-level felon encountered by our wayward gals, who takes an unexpected shine to Cooper.

“You’re ... kind of intense,” he says, in obvious admiration. “I dig it.”

To which Cooper can only stare, quite blankly.

Failed films come in all shapes and sizes, the worst clearly being those that are so deadly dull, or so hopelessly unfunny, that we’d cheerfully opt for root-canal surgery, over spending another minute in their inept company. Hot Pursuit isn’t in that league; it’s what I’d call watchably bad.

And, at a fleeting 87 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its limited welcome. Fletcher and editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly rip through the various plot shenanigans with crisp intensity, clearly intending to get off the stage as quickly as possible. For which they have my undying gratitude.

But make no mistake: This is pretty thin gruel, and nothing to be proud of.

I guess Witherspoon can be congratulated for a willingness to branch out, dress down, and hurl herself into something truly different. But goodness, gal, be a little more selective next time!

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