Deep Focus: Hot Pursuit
Why Reese Witherspoon would choose to play an obsessive, hyper-focused cop in Anne Fletcher’s action comedy Hot Pursuit is even more puzzling than why she would decide to produce the movie. The role releases nothing new in her; at times she seems to be competing in a high-speed recitation contest of the Texas law-enforcement handbook. Hot Pursuit is the third film from Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard production company after Gone Girl and Wild. The drop in sophistication and competence is startling.
Witherspoon’s Officer Cooper fends off cartel tough guys and cops on the take as she races through Texas with Sofia Vergara’s Daniella Riva, a Colombian drug lord’s widow. It’s as if the filmmakers intend to pull off a female version of reluctant buddy movies like 48 HRS. and Midnight Run. “My daughter was 13, and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories,” Witherspoon told Variety about her reasons for founding the company. Her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea, added: “What attracts us is character and a funny, unique voice, regardless of genre.”
But the characters of the secretly smart, sexy drug moll and the driven, boyish policewoman are retro clichés, even if we’re supposed to see their grudging respect and eventual bonding as signs of female empowerment. The kind of “voice” Papandrea means—writing that expresses genuine observation and personality—is exactly what Hot Pursuit lacks. You can imagine its odd-couple gags about a fiery Latina and an uptight gringa being punched out on antique IBM cards from some primitive comedy database.
Thanks to the stars, the movie has plenty of non-literary “voice.” Vergara stamps all of Riva’s lines with her own erotic huskiness—the tantalizing timbre that can turn a kvetch into a come-on. Unfortunately, Witherspoon adopts a pinched rat-a-tat-tat delivery; Cooper sounds like her antiheroine Tracy Flick from Election (99) on helium and methamphetamine. Witherspoon acts so jacked-up from the start that a potentially hilarious gag about Cooper and Riva getting coated in cocaine is merely worrisome. You fear that Witherspoon’s toy-size, wind-up cop is finally going to pop her springs.
At first it can be amusing to hear Vergara luxuriate in Riva’s putdowns of Cooper: “You’re so teeny-tiny, you’re like a little dog I can put in my purse!” But the comedy is not just repetitive—it’s also woefully one-sided, because the writers (David Feeney and John Quaintance) misjudge their effects. They think we’ll find Cooper more diverting than annoying when she spits out rules and regs. They position Cooper as the crazy comic and Riva as the curvy straight (wo)man. As it plays out, Riva functions as sporadic comic relief in an abysmal comedy.
Neither performer phones it in, but there’s a disconnect between the herky-jerky storytelling and the nonstop patter. At one bewildering juncture, the women elude a police blockade by pretending to be a single deer, wandering on the side of the road. (In an absurd coincidence, they’ve found an antlers-to-tail deerskin in the back of a pickup.) Even if you suspend disbelief for the sake of hijinks, the stupefying part comes when they set out to rejoin the only man who’s helping them—Cooper’s romantic salvation, a virile, chivalric hooligan, aptly named Randy (Robert Kazinsky). He’s been driving them toward Dallas in a truck. You hear Cooper say, “Now let’s go find Randy,” and that’s it. At moments like that, when crude expository lines get pasted on images like captions, the stars might as well be doing voiceovers.
In a revealing instance of closing-credit outtakes being more charming than the film itself, Witherspoon and Vergara really do appear to enjoy each other as performers. But by then they have failed to persuade us that Cooper and Riva spark as characters. The obligatory pretend-lesbian scene would fall embarrassingly flat were it not for the equally predictable presence of an ogling, gun-toting farmer, played with gusto by down-to-earth comic Jim Gaffigan.
Hot Pursuit has bad luck and poor judgment: today’s audiences won’t automatically love a gung-ho cop like Cooper. At the start of the film, she’s been busted to the property room in her San Antonio precinct because she was quick to use her Taser on an innocent teenager. (This supposedly uproarious subplot isn’t as disastrous as it could be—as least the boy is white and privileged.) It’s an unfortunate way of establishing why she’s the worst kind of department joke—the kind that becomes a verb, as in, “You really Coopered that one”—and also why she’s super-eager to take the assignment of escorting Riva to Dallas for the trial of a cartel leader.
The problem isn’t just one or two myopic sight gags. It’s that Hot Pursuit is as muddled as it is shallow, even for silly escapism. Cooper’s friendship with Riva is supposed to loosen her up. She sees that operating strictly by the book has been crippling her emotionally and professionally. She warms to the convicted felon Randy when she learns that his only crime was beating up women-beating men. But she also bends the rules so that Riva, her high-living new bestie, will still be a millionaire when she gets out of prison. It’s a sour and superfluous touch, because Riva has already demonstrated that her “feminine wiles” make her a winner no matter how constricted the surroundings. Even her jailers love her.
Anne Fletcher is one of the few dancer-choreographers to become a director. She was an associate choreographer on the exuberant movie-musical version of Hairspray (07), boasts choreography credits on a number of other musical and non-musical films (including The 40-Year-Old Virgin), and made her directorial debut with the smash teen-dance movie Step Up (06). Her biggest hit so far, The Proposal (09), was a slick, shameless rom-com that should have generated more chemistry between the always game Sandra Bullock and the affable, inventive Ryan Reynolds. But Fletcher may have a blind spot: for long stretches she let Bullock mistake a robotic verbal attack for a comic style, just as Witherspoon does here. Fletcher did her most skillful and appealing work in 2012’s unfairly pilloried The Guilt Trip, adjusting her tempo to the rhythms of two idiosyncratic leads: Barbra Streisand at her most casual and skillful, and Seth Rogen at his most hangdog and likable. In Hot Pursuit, her eye for movement produces conceivably effective setups, including Riva dragging her designer-shoe-filled suitcase and the diminutive Cooper (who’s trying to stop her), or Witherspoon making Cooper’s climb up a saloon men’s room wall to a high window seem as momentous as scaling Yosemite’s Half Dome — by hand. What’s missing is the confident, intuitive vision that would unify the banter, the caricatures, and the cartoon compositions—and detonate the expected belly laughs. Or maybe the script was just too lousy.
Witherspoon is actually funnier in Wild, especially when struggling with an overstuffed backpack, even though her character, Cheryl Strayed, is desperate and melancholy. Whenever Witherspoon can combine her savvy, instincts and smarts, as she did in Walk the Line (05) and early on, in Freeway (96), she’s a great performer, illuminating every dimension of her roles and coming up with comic or dramatic surprises, like the way she conjures moments of cringe-inducing dramedy and heartbreak with Cheryl’s collegiate condescension toward her mother. Even when she puts together just two or three of her best qualities, she can be tremendously engaging, as in Pleasantville (98). And she can act like a genuine movie star, with deft comic timing and instant audience rapport, as in the crowd-pleasing Legally Blonde (01).
In a Los Angeles Times feature on the film, Rebecca Keegan describes the star as cultivating a “proper, Southern-belle persona filtered through a type-A personality.” Witherspoon herself labeled her first production company “Type A.” But how many moviegoers or celebrity-watchers see her that way? She did have a run of turkeys after Legally Blonde, including Legally Blonde 2, playing calculating women in calculated performances. But she’s been on a rough-and-ready roll ever since her standout appearance in Jeff Nichols’s Mud (12); she even brought some saltiness and sass to the socially conscious heart-warmer The Good Lie (14).
When I interviewed her for Walk the Line, the only time her voice tensed over the phone came after I asked whether it was a relief to play a fluid woman like June Carter following a string of shrewd gals in films like Just Like Heaven (05). “I know I don't play stupid well,” she said. “I don't know how to do ‘I don't think.’ I can't get that dumb, vapid look. If you want dumb and pretty, don't come to me.” Maybe that answers the question I first asked in this piece: why would she choose to act in this screwy nothing of a movie? In Hot Pursuit she tries to parody what she perceives as her own hyper-rational excesses. Like Officer Cooper, she tries too hard.