Monday, May 11, 2015

Road Runners: HOT PURSUIT

Hot Pursuit is a formulaic buddy comedy. In its amiable sense of humor and flat, bright, big-screen sitcom aesthetic, it could’ve been made exactly like this at any point in the last thirty years. But at least director Anne Fletcher gets the buddy part of the comedy exactly right. Her best quality behind the camera has always been getting good chemistry out of a pair of performers, be it a romantic (Step Up, The Proposal) or familial (The Guilt Trip) relationship. Here she pairs Reese Witherspoon (movie star) as a short blonde Southern cop and SofĂ­a Vergara (TV star) as a tall brunette Columbian witness on a race across Texas pursued by bad guys. They’re a duo with clear, obvious differences, both as performers and as characters, and Fletcher enjoys seeing them spark as they’re run through some mild action comedy paces.

The setup is so familiar it’s dispensed rather briskly. Witherspoon’s cop is an uptight by-the-book workaholic assigned to help escort Vergara, the flamboyant wife of a drug cartel whistleblower, to the courthouse. Before that can happen, cartel assassins and crooked cops attack, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Off-screen miscommunications leave them considered fugitives, heightening the desperation and keeping the two wildly different people stuck together until they can clear their names and stop the people who want to kill them. Along the way, they learn to begrudgingly work together to get out of a series of hijinks, of course.

This is a thin and predictable story, complete with plot points – like the eventual fates of several baddies - trimmed away as if screenwriters David Feeney and John Quaintance knew we’d seen this kind of thing before and would understand what usually happens in movies like this. It’s a loose, episodically structured movie that constantly avoids momentum, big comic setpieces, or high suspense, banking on likable leads to carry the day. So there’s not much to it, and little you haven’t seen before in some way or another. At least there’s a moment of accidental commentary on recent events, when Vergara mentions fear of bad cops and Witherspoon reassures her, saying, “I’m not like the other cops. You can trust me!”

And there’s where the movie succeeds, not in accidental topicality, and certainly not in novelty, but because Witherspoon and Vergara are a charming pair. Their relationship is just convincing enough to sustain a trim 87-minutes, credit bloopers included. Of course it’s broadly sketched, with characters reduced to only what makes them obviously different. They steer into their personas, exaggerating their accents with sparkles in their eyes. Camera angles emphasize their height differences, Vergara towering over Witherspoon in most scenes, the former wearing dresses accentuating her curves, the latter decked out in boyish apparel more often than not. They have good rapport, and appear to having a good time bouncing off the other.

The jokes could be funnier. The plot could be tighter. But the performers flying through every scene hold it together. The appeal rests solely on how much entertainment can be wrung out of a scene where the pair tries to change clothes in the middle of a gas station shop, distract a redneck (Jim Gaffigan) into not shooting them for trespassing, commandeer a bus of elderly tourists, wear a dead deer as an impromptu disguise, or accidentally kidnap a felon on house arrest (Robert Kazinsky) and force him to help. Even something as simple as a running joke about every news report increasing Vergara’s age and lowering Witherspoon’s height brings about reliably funny exasperation. The movie’s loose, agreeable, and so, so slight, the sort of empty confection that will play even better on TBS some lazy Sunday. Vergara and Witherspoon could be the center of a great comedy. Maybe they will be someday. For now, they're just in this one.

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