Allow me to clear up any confusion right up front: Hot Pursuit is not directed by Paul Feig, and it does not star Melissa McCarthy. It’s unfortunate that both Feig and McCarthy have become synonymous as the go-to (read: only) source of female-centered movie comedy — not merely because it pigeon-holes two great talents, but because they will likely be mistaken for having something to do with movies like this one, which takes the newly-minted and ostensibly fresh “female buddy comedy” and makes it seem about as stale as the genre’s countless male-centered counterparts that have littered cinema screens for decades.
Make no mistake — there is plenty of talent involved. Evidence of that sits right above the title, where the names Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara shine with the promise of the Next Great Unlikely Comic Duo. And to their credit, the two headlining stars generate some spontaneously funny moments. Only problem is, those moments all take place during the outtake montage that flickers aside the end credits. For the bulk of the film’s running time, these talented actresses are made to shriek and bellow at one another as they amble from one lazy episode to another, guided by a screenplay that functions like a CliffsNotes version of late-’80s Buddy Comedy.
The setup is simple — and lame. Witherspoon is the uptight, by-the-book cop archetype who is assigned to escort Vergara, who is the loud Latina bombshell archetype, to a courthouse so she can testify against a drug kingpin. Best laid plans go awry, of course, in this case taking the form of the worst-staged mafia homicide in recent movie history, which forces these disparate stereotypes together as they hit the road to evade mob henchmen and crooked cops. Plenty of hijinks ensue, involving narrow escapes, shifting alliances, and, of course, awkward lesbian kissing. There’s also a brief interlude toward the film’s climax where Reese is made to change her wardrobe multiple times for no other reason than the screenwriters thought the “funny disguise” concept was funny when they saw it in a movie 25 years ago.
It would be easy to say that movie like this is solely dependent upon its actors to inject some verve into the otherwise stale goofball premise, but that frankly lays too much responsibility at the feet of the poor actors. Sometimes the material just sucks. There is no questioning the talent of these actresses — Witherspoon is an Oscar winner, Vergara is a multiple Emmy nominee. But in terms of comic material, this ranks about a notch above Legally Blonde 2 for Witherspoon, while Vergara is portrayed as an even more glaring physical and ethnic stereotype than she is on Modern Family, and here there’s no sense of irony to balance the gaze.
With the rise of successful female-centered comedies driven largely by the directorial hand of Feig, a man, it should be viewed as progress that Hot Pursuit is helmed by Anne Fletcher. Female stories by female directors. But there’s more to competent filmmaking than mere sisterhood. For example, it’s hard to focus on the intricacies of comedic timing when it appears 30% of your film was re-shot against transparently fake backdrops. And harder still to relish these roles for women when the screenplay was written by two men who only seem to view the characters as walking punchlines. So we collectively sigh and mark our calendars for the next Feig opus, which will hopefully redeem this tiny slice of female-owned cinematic landscape.