“Hot Pursuit” starring Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara is billed by Warner Bros. as a comedy. But to be a comedy a movie should contain at least one or two laughs, no? “Hot Pursuit” barely induces a giggle.
The storyline goes that the two actresses have gone into producing their own material so they won’t be saddled with the kind of charmless, brain-dead roles Hollywood loves to foster on actresses. So together — the film was produced and exec produced by the two actress respectively — the duo makes a movie that places them both in charmless, brain-dead roles.
Certainly the two make a serious miscalculation on how best to deploy their talents. Indeed for much of the movie each seems to be ad-libbing bits of business and overstressing line readings, which suggests no clear idea of where the comedy wants to go.
An award winner for her serious roles, Witherspoon has done comedy, of course, such as in her “Legally Blonde” series. But here she is “playing” comedy like a carpenter hammering nails into wood, leaping into pratfalls that fall flat and delivering lines with an intensity that betrays a lack of trust in the material.
Vergara, who has made a name for herself as an apologetic Latina sex bomb on ABC’s “Modern Family,” continues in this mode, mangling the English language and thrusting her chest out at every opportunity. Yet she is never in sync with Witherspoon’s comic desperation.
In buddy movies someone has to play straight man, at least for a while, but here, with each actress playing her own aggressive style of comedy while ignoring the other, it’s more like a competition for attention: Look at me! No, Look at me! No, dammit, look at me!
Nothing sparks between them. They quarrel but instead of like cats and dogs it’s more like oil and water.
In a female buddy movie such as the Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy starrer, “The Heat,” you at least understand the comic mismatch — a by-the-books straight arrow cop paired with an abrasive, blue-collar loudmouth cop.
But in “Hot Pursuit,” the worst and clumsiest cop in the force is paired with the worst and least reliable witness in the witness protection program. Each operates in her own comic dither so there is no miss to mismatch.
Witherspoon plays Officer Cooper, a San Antonio policewoman who would give Inspector Clouseau a run for his money in the bumbling ineptitude department. She is assigned to the station’s property room to protect the general public and colleagues from her misadventures.
Unaccountably her boss assigns her along with a real cop to escort a mobster and his wife Daniella, played by Vergara, to Dallas to testify against a drug lord. Two pairs of bad guys show up at the mobster’s unaccountably unguarded mansion and a gun fight ensues, leaving Cooper and Daniella on the run pursued by crooked cops and mobsters.
The screenplay by David Feeney & John Quaintance contrives for cell phones to get misplaced or broken and for law enforcement to somehow think the witness and cop are fugitives, thus explaining why a simple call to headquarters can’t extricate them from their predicament.
“Comic” scrapes search desperately for laughs: A guy trying to use a toilet gets dragged into boosting the two out of a men’s room window. A farmer accidentally shots off a finger. A convict with an ankle monitor speeds them to an Indian casino hideout.
For the most part the male partners in the sequences must stand and stare as the two actresses chase in circles trying to create comedy out of chaotic activity.
It’s a mess and this can mostly be blamed (after the writing, of course) on director Anne Fletcher. If handed even a so-so script such as Sandra Bullock’s “The Proposal,” she can effectively mount a comedy. But when something is sloppily written, such as “The Guilt Trip” with Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand or “Hot Pursuit,” her actors flounder in flat performances.
There’s no saving grace here and perhaps in apology for the film’s ineptitude, the makers resort to the old trick of showing blown takes during the final credit roll as if to say these outtakes may be better than the movie itself.
But it’s a close call as to which are worse.
Opens: May 8, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures present a Foxy/Pacific Standard production
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, John Carroll Lynch, Robert Kazinsky. Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Richard T. Jones
Director: Anne Fletcher
Screenwriters: David Feeney & John Quaintance
Producers: Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon, Dana Fox
Executive producers: Jeff Waxman, Sofia Vergara, Luis Balaguer
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton
Production designer: Nelson Coates
Music: Christophe Beck
Costume designer: Catherine Marie Thomas
Editor: Priscilla Nedd Friendly
PG-13 rating, 87 minutes