‘Hot Pursuit’
Director:
Anne Fletcher
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

The first thing one needs to get out of the way to get anything out of “Hot Pursuit” is the issue of it not being very good. It’s a forced farce buddy comedy that in another era would have been one of the lesser Bob Hope-Bing Crosby or Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis entries — an installment that does little but coast on the charms of its cast. Once expectations have been lowered and one knows that, say, a set piece in which Reese Witherspoon tries to alternately drive a bus and shoot at some baddies, all while handcuffed to Sofia Vergara, won’t have any shape and many botched laughs, then the film overall has something nearly approximating charm, almost.

Most of the goodwill comes from its two leads, who are trying as hard as their script is not. Witherspoon may be slumming, but that doesn’t mean she’s slacking, and she comfortably slips back into Type-A, overachieving Tracy Flick mode as lowly cop Cooper, who is essentially her “Election” character if she never quite made it. Consigned to desk detail while longing for a real assignment, Cooper winds up with one, only to find herself on the run from murderous cops, angry assassins and the authorities themselves, all of whom want Vergara’s drug lord wife Daniella. And in the fashion of decades of mismatched screen pairs, bickering leads to a shaky, insult-heavy friendship, some de-uptighting on Cooper’s part and a scene where they hide by dressing up in a dead deer’s coat while making distracting noises.

That bit is typical of “Hot Pursuit,” which tends to give its leads a vague description of a comedic set piece (one imagines the script featuring the words “joke TK” a lot) then has them overact to sell it. They are likable enough that sometimes it almost works, and they fit a tried and true comic duo staple, the statuesque Vergara making Witherspoon look like a tiny yapping dog, bulging her eyes and bouncing around to be noticed. In her first big co-lead movie, Vergara sometimes acts bigger and louder than she needs to, especially in the opening stretch, but she soon chills into a jokey-warm rapport with Witherspoon. Vergara’s a fine vamp and looks suitably mesmerizing when brandishing a gun; she’s good now, but she’s going to be amazing when she’s 55.

“Hot Pursuit” is nearly as useful for its stray gender commentary. This is one of the only summer ’15 behemoths directed by a woman, namely “The Proposal”’s Anne Fletcher, as well as one of the few starring two of them. (Even “Spy,” the latest from femme-friendly Paul Feig, pairs two women stars with two dudes.) Its heroes are types who have been traditionally underappreciated — a female cop and a trophy wife — but who nonetheless prove smart and adept. At one point they try to wiggle their way out of a pickle involving a redneck gun-toter (Jim Gaffigan) by pretending to be lipstick lesbians. But the joke is solely on horndog men hoping for some girl-on-girl action; Witherspoon and Vergara’s kiss is wholly strained and far from erotic — a gag that refuses to make fun of placating dudes while also placating dudes. (Compare and contrast with a similar scene in “American Pie 2,” which does just that.) Such moments are rare in “Hot Pursuit”; after all, creating a more robust feminist statement would have required someone other than its stars to care.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge