A lousy Rotten Tomatoes score should not keep us from seeing Hot Pursuit. Its dismal 5% rating on the Tomatometer once again proves that consensus is not everything. Consensus certainly should never be the deciding factor in how we experience a movie, because lots of people can be wrong. Hot Pursuit may be flawed, but it is comedy dynamite that gets the “buddy movie” right and provides plumb roles for its two stars, Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara. The film isn’t perfect structurally, but it’s bursting with well-crafted scenes that build on the relationship between the two leads, it’s finely tuned and generous and light and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Reese Witherspoon conjures up memories of Holly Hunter’s plucky police woman in Raising Arizona, as well as Amy Poehler’s indefatigable Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation. Witherspoon plays Officer Rose Cooper, an exceedingly literal-minded, by-the-book San Antonio cop with a Texas twang. Cooper has memorized all the police codes and spouts them out like a mantra when she’s stressed; she can recite the law and the statutes from memory; her uniform is impeccably neat and shiny. But no one respects her, because she cares too much.
It is this intense, totally authentic dedication to her job and the overflow of passion she has for it which bind her to Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec. The difference between them is that Leslie Knope has a team of supporters balancing her bubbly, singular insanity, while Officer Cooper is basically a loner, alienated from the rest of the world because of her intense personality. In the opening scene of the film, we see her chasing a fleeing man because he ran out on a date; she’s possibly the scariest thing an insecure heterosexual man will ever encounter: a confident woman with a gun and a badge.
However, Officer Cooper (or just, Cooper) really scares people off because she isn’t a smooth operator; she doesn’t know how to bullshit, and fluffy conversation—the stuff so many of us rely on in order to gradually get to know other people—is not her forte. She is too focused on tasks for small talk. When riding in the car with a big, tall U.S. marshal who tells her to try not to fall in love with him, she responds: “10-4. Oh. That was a joke, wasn’t it.”
Reese Witherspoon is an actress who has often played the dumb blond in lackluster Hollywood comedies; there’s nothing wrong with playing a dumb blond unless you get stuck in that role forever. Fortunately, Witherspoon has shown us a wider range of acting chops, and now she’s playing a more complex kind of comic character, one who is smart and good and honest but also kind of ridiculous and even annoying, and it’s a much more engaging, physical, and hilarious performance we get as a result. Witherspoon maintains the integrity of her character while happily letting herself look silly, sometimes being left out of a joke because she’s so serious, so tense, so committed to giving 150%.
The plot is standard Hollywood comedy formula: Officer Cooper is sent to escort jewel-encrusted Columbian diva Danielle Riva (Sofía Vergara), the wife of a drug lord, to Dallas so she can testify against the leader of a large drug cartel who is currently in jail. But things go wrong, as they tend to do in these movies, and Witherspoon and Vergara take it on the lam with both drug lords and police chasing after them.
Sofía Vergara’s performance is delicious. She sounds like a Columbian Fran Drescher (which may grate on some people’s nerves); she’s like a Redwood standing next to the petite Cooper, especially because she’s sporting a pair of wedges that are worth more than a suburban house. Vergara apes the stereotypes aimed at Hispanic women and rich women: she’s a tall, curvy, stylish, materialistic woman on the outside; but she’s also intuitive and smart, and uses the stereotypes to her advantage, maintaining a subtle control over the various insane situations the movie throws at her. Vergara is also impressively in command of herself as a physical performer. She doesn’t resort to klutziness for comedy, and she gets great mileage out of picking on poor, diminutive Reese Witherspoon. “Get down!” Cooper yells when they’re being shot at; “It is farther for me!” Mrs. Riva retorts.
The interplay between these two women is often delightful. The director, Anne Fletcher, takes time to fashion scenes so that the gags build on each other. In one scene, the ladies are trying on clothes at a gas station, and Vergara puts Witherspoon in a sexy red number that utterly clashes with her character. Officer Cooper groans, “I feel like the cheese fell off my cracker.” Despite the fact that the movie does not always hold up around them, these two actresses take command of the screen and make the movie work for them. I can forgive a lot for such terrific comic performances. I can only hope that this movie finds the audience it deserves.
With Matthew Del Negro, Michael Mosley, Robert Kazinsky, John Carroll Lynch, Richard T. Jones, and Jim Gaffigan (in a funny bit as a farmer). Written by David Feeney and John Quaintance.