Comedy is hard. It’s not just about cracking a consistent number of one-liners or enduring a countless number of pratfalls (or grossing everyone out, as many comedians and filmmakers today believe is the only definition of comedy); to be truly funny, you have to understand the art of comic timing. Without it, any type of joke can become really awkward or utterly confusing. For the most part, this weight generally falls on the shoulders of the actors, simply because they are the face on the screen — if they fail at drawing laughs, there really isn’t anything anyone can do to fix that. But they aren’t the only person that holds the blame when something fails to strike a chord in the funny-bone of the viewer. The director molds the final product and if they can’t find the right rhythm within the flow and editing of a piece, the timing the actors may have had on set can become jilted. And it’s clear early on in Hot Pursuit that director Anne Fletcher can be blamed for the inconsistency of laughs in a film ripe for utter hilarity.
Had the direction been more concise with a more natural flow, Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara might have found a solid foundation to connect on a much stronger level. From their previous work, it’s obvious both of these women have a knack for comedy, though in very different ways. Witherspoon has a natural southern charm that translates well into naive fish-out-of-water characters, mining laughs from her very spirited, downhome-hick attitude. Vergara on the other hand, is comfortable in an ensemble, as her comedy style is very reactive, able to play off of other actors very well — when paired with the right people, as evidenced by her role on Modern Family, she is an unstoppable firecracker. Pairing these two together begs for fireworks and the kinetic energy fires on all cylinders as their specific talents are utilized well against one another. But Fletcher tears away at this chemistry by failing to match the timing and the rhythm of their style, ultimately keeping them from being able to gel the way it most likely felt when on set.
Not like the actresses had all that much to sink their teeth into. Witherspoon plays Cooper, a young, eager cop assigned to protect Daniella Riva (Vergara) from drug lords who want to kill her and her husband (Vincent Laresca) before they can testify against them. When the Riva estate comes under attack (not only by the drug lords, but by two masked men as well), Cooper and Daniella must take to the road in a Midnight Run-style road trip. As I pointed out, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these two actresses falling back on their comfort zones to deliver fun, likable performances, but when the writers fail to elevate these caricature archetypes beyond recycling the kitchen sink from better movies, laughs are more often replaced with yawns. Vergara isn’t given anything to help deviate her from a wealthier (and more conniving) Gloria Pritchett, while Witherspoon is buried under an amalgamation of the lowest common denominator from several previous roles.
From the first frame of the film, Cooper is set-up to become a stellar police officer. Spending nearly all of her childhood in the back of a squad car (because her father is a police officer), it’s only inevitable that Cooper end up a cop. However, when we first see her in uniform, we’re told she’s been demoted to evidence clerk after accidentally lighting a politician’s shirt on fire with a stun gun after overhearing him call out, “I’ve got shotgun.” I have a hard time believing that anyone her age, unless they were incredibly sheltered, would never have heard that phrase used in that context (as in claiming the front seat in someone’s car). Then to believe she would be anything but an upstanding officer with a flurry of awards to show off her excellence, kept me from relating to her, thus distancing me from the overall premise of the film right from the jump. Yeah, the running joke of her knowledge and insistence for police procedure is amusing, but it might have worked even better had she been one of the most respected officers in the precinct.
It also doesn’t help that the script, written by David Feeney and John Quaintance, plays like a kid in a sandbox continually running away with the best toys when he gets bored with them. There are a number of scenes that just start to hit their stride when they abruptly end simply because the writers don’t seem to know what else to do with it. After Daniella’s car is smashed by a truck and kilos of cocaine explode all over, Cooper inadvertently gets high. It’s a very memorable scene and showcases Witherspoon at the top of her game, but within a couple of minutes, it’s as if the whole thing had never happened. The same goes for a scene late in the film when Witherspoon dresses up as a man (or boy, depending on your perspective) to infiltrate a party. There could have been so much more possibilities from this scenario, but Feeney and Quaintance never capitalize on Witherspoon’s ability to sustain a joke. Both the unoriginal (yet still strong) twist and a love story are also left to dangle in the wind without much reward, which, come to think of it, is how the entire film feels — there are plenty of morsels of richness, but they remain tied to a tree branch that no one can ever reach.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include Mad Max: Fury Road, and Pitch Perfect 2. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.