When it comes to choosing what to review next, I have a tendency to pick movies that are, for lack of a better word, bad. I know they’re bad; that’s why I want to write about them. Maybe it’s just that I love an underdog. But more so, I feel like the really bad stuff rarely gets the full review treatment that I want to explore after seeing any movie. Bad movie reviews are often so caught up in explaining what sucked about the movie that they never get around to discussing the movie itself. So when I write a bad movie review (“bad” being the modifier to “movie”, god help me to make this review a good one) I try to sift through the muck to find what’s actually worth talking about.
Hot Pursuit is a bad movie. A 6% score on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it on par with Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, leaves little doubt to that fact. If you’re unfamiliar with RT scores, that’s not just bad, that’s spectacularly bad, and after seeing Hot Pursuit in a very large, very empty theater this opening weekend, I can attest to that number’s accuracy. Unlike some of my other Bad Movie Reviews, nowhere on this page will you find a recommendation that you see Hot Pursuit. It’s not so-bad-it’s-good; it’s so-bad-it’s-so-bad.
So why are we even here, you ask? Well, dear reader, I have asked myself that many times today as I prepared to write this review. And here’s what I’ve decided: this movie, like all movies, was made with the intention of being good. And therefore there must be a good movie buried deep in it somewhere. Today we are going to excavate the bones of that good movie, you and I, and see if we can reconstruct what might have been. Grab your Indiana Jones hat and let’s go digging. Spoilers ahead.
Three major players come together to make Hot Pursuit, each from a different corner of Hollywood stardom, and each a formidable and incredibly successful woman. They are director Anne Fletcher and co-stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. It’s actually Ms. Fletcher who drew me to this film in the first place. She may not be as much a household name as the others, but she’s certainly a name in my (one-person) household: she directed Channing Tatum starmaker Step Up, Katherine Heigl peak-era 27 Dresses, and the Sandra Bullock/Ryan Reynolds caper The Proposal, which remains the sixth-highest grossing romantic comedy of all time. Fletcher began her film career as a dancer and choreographer, and her IMDb page is a staggering resumé of some of the most successful pop movies of the past twenty years. As such, her directing style lends a lot of weight to the actors’ physicality, not only in the form of physical comedy and dance numbers (there’s a ton of the former in Hot Pursuit and at least one instance of the latter), but in setting up shots that will best highlight an actor’s full range of motion, for either comedic or dramatic effect. In Hot Pursuit, this is most done with wide shots of Vergara and Witherspoon, whose size discrepancy accounts for most of the humor, written and physical, of the film.
The good news is that Reese and Sofia seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and that sense of camaraderie picks up a lot of Hot Pursuit‘s slack. As police officer Rose Cooper (Witherspoon) and mob wife Daniella Riva (Vergara), the two actresses get to play in the sandbox of screwball comedy, and their enthusiasm for each other is infectious. The pairing is, strangely, not unlike that of Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart in April’s Get Hard, another bad movie of 2015 (although one that I guffawed at)—an odd couple who make for a strange visual, but whose different comedic styles and talents complement and emphasize the other’s. Vergara and Witherspoon don’t have the chops of Ferrell and Hart, but they barrel forward anyway with the verve of your mom playing charades, and much of the same goofy charm.
What there was of the plot is hardly worth getting into; suffice it to say that Agent Cooper and Ms. Riva find themselves on the lam from a Colombian drug cartel staffed by dirty cops. It’s primarily a road trip movie, with enough car chases to put it under the action-comedy header. Reese dials up her natural southern drawl to play Cooper, who has a Tracy Flick-like intensity when it comes to policework, although she is not very good at her job. Reese’s performance tickles but rarely takes off, thanks mostly to lazy writing trying to pass as comedy. (Cooper, a Texan, tries to identify a Longhorn symbol: “It looks like a melting snowman.”) The best kind of underdog movies have an underdog who actually has the skills to come out on top, and Reese’s Cooper is just kind of lame, if adorably so.
Sofia Vergara continues to be Sofia Vergara as she wails, riffs insults in Spanish, and lugs around a suitcase full of eight-inch stilettos. I am still waiting for someone to find the next great vehicle for Vergara, who has been stuck playing her very successful role on Modern Family in everything else she pursues. To be fair, her accented line readings are hilarious without fail, even when the dialogue isn’t much—my biggest laugh in Hot Pursuit was from a bit of sexual advice Riva tells Cooper involving “giving him the pirate key,” which is still funny if you read it with Sofia’s inflections in mind. Vergara comes close to finding that role in the last act of Hot Pursuit, which basically becomes a different movie for her (although not, unfortunately, for the rest of us). Once it’s revealed that Riva is her own criminal mastermind, everything about Vergara’s performance transforms for the better. As a powerful woman preparing for revenge, she is stunning: her body visibly relaxed, her usual shrillness replaced with cool savvy and some serious emotional beats. This is the kind of role she needs to be taking more of. Vergara may have provided the biggest laughs of the movie, but once her character stops being funny, the movie actually starts to get good. Not coincidentally, this is also the part of the movie where Reese Witherspoon’s character poses as a man, which is, in and of itself, wonderfully funny.
It’s that last act of the film where Hot Pursuit finds itself, and where I can see glimmers of the Film That Might Have Been. Giving Vergara the opportunity to play straight woman—even if a very funny straight woman—to Witherspoon’s whacked-out Bieber impersonation is just the right kind of surprising choice for fresh, original comedy. I would have loved to see an entire movie built around these last scenes, in which Riva the Drug Lord is constantly swatting away the overeager Cooper. That dynamic is infinitely more interesting than “two hot women in a stolen car.”
If you really want to know more about Hot Pursuit‘s considerable failures, I’ll direct you back to that Rotten Tomatoes page, but I’d like to cut my own commentary off here. What I want to get across is that Hot Pursuit had good intentions, and, when broken down, actually has a fair amount of merit. Female-driven comedy, despite what the media will have us think, is still a rare commodity, and we shouldn’t be any less proud of this one just because it’s terrible. If anything we should take this as a good sign—when we get shit like this, doesn’t it mean we’re on the road to mainstream? I’d like to commend the women of Hot Pursuit for showing up to the field, even if they played a miserable game. After all, that’s how all underdog stories begin.
Hot Pursuit is in theaters everywhere.