Film

Witherspoon and Vergara Lift Hot Pursuit Into Hilarity

by

Sofía Vergara is built like an amphora, a living testament to the form ceramicists throughout the centuries have adored. In the fleet and gloriously ridiculous comedy Hot Pursuit, Vergara plays Daniella Riva, a mobster’s wife who needs to be escorted from San Antonio to Dallas, where she’ll testify against the head of a major drug cartel. Uptight, by-the-book police officer Rose Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) has the job of getting her there safely, only to learn that a pair of crooked cops (Matthew Del Negro and Michael Mosley) are hot on their trail. On the lam in Riva’s red convertible — which, as we shall see, turns out to be packed to an explosive degree with “baking powder” — they dash into a roadside convenience store to buy new outfits, pose as traveling veterinarians, and circumvent a police roadblock by disguising themselves as a deer in the wild. As one does while on the lam.

The flagrant silliness of Hot Pursuit is a plus, not a liability. Directed by Anne Fletcher — whose last picture was the underloved but therapeutically ingenious Seth Rogen–Barbra Streisand comedy The Guilt TripHot Pursuit is a quiet triumph of tone and timing. Nearly every scene is cut at just the right point, often topped off with a fantastic kicker of dialogue. While self-deprecation is integral to humor, self-humiliation is a trickier, more delicate business, particularly when it comes to comic roles for women. Thankfully, Hot Pursuit — with its script by David Feeney and John Quaintance, both of whom have thus far been writing mostly for TV — avoids gags of the “Darn! I broke my heel!” variety. (That’s smart, particularly considering that Vergara loves to strut around in platform stilettos that seem to lift her from 5-7 or so to unmeasurable amazonian heights.)

It’s one thing for a character to laugh at herself; it’s another for her to present herself as a pathetic, adorable creature in a lowball bid for laughs. You might think Witherspoon’s peeking out from beneath a deer’s head unduly compromises her dignity, but there’s actually something ludicrously refreshing about it — partly because Fletcher doesn’t take the cheap route of zooming in for a haw-haw close-up, and partly because Witherspoon’s performance here has so much go-for-broke fearlessness.

Remarkably, Witherspoon’s career has been chugging along for nearly a quarter of a century now; it’s hard to believe it’s been almost twenty years since she gave that wonderful, tough-mug performance in Matthew Bright’s crazy-great Freeway. In the years since, she’s sometimes been terrific (most recently in last year’s Wild) and other times traded too heavily on her country-cuteness (the Sweet Home Alabama years). But now she seems unafraid to cut loose, and she and Vergara make a terrific team.

In the early scenes, Witherspoon’s Cooper is a wound-tight mighty mite who’s been relegated to the police department’s evidence room after a dust-up that has come to be known as “the shotgun incident.” (It doesn’t, of course, involve a real shotgun.) Cooper’s a rule-follower, not a rule-breaker, and her literal-mindedness gets her into trouble. That’s why Vergara’s flamboyant Riva, with her (real) suitcase full of shiny shoes and her (figurative) handbag full of mispronunciations, is such a delightful match for her. She sizes up the diminutive Cooper in regulation blues, and says, “Look at you, you’re teeny-tiny, you’re like a little dog I can put in my purse!” Cooper’s face falls, but how can she refute it? She is teeny-tiny.

Vergara, a sultry malaprop princess, could have easily stolen the spotlight here. But she knows how to open up space around her in a scene, and that’s key to her considerable comic gifts. When Cooper breaks it to Riva that the criminal husband she loathes has been shot dead, Riva bawls like Lucy Ricardo discovering she won’t be in Ricky’s show. “I am a weeeeeeeedow!” she wails, living so pleasurably in this moment of high melodrama that you want to howl along with her.

Even though Vergara is the chief draw of the hit show Modern Family, the screening audience around me at Hot Pursuit seemed reluctant to laugh at her mangling of the English language, as if doing so constituted laughing at a foreigner for something she can’t help. But Vergara invites our laughter, and clearly delights in it. Plus, it’s her delivery and her timing that sets her apart — she’s a natural performer, in full command of her considerable gifts. Her authoritative, detailed explanation of menstruation to an embarrassed male cop is one of the funniest things I’ve heard in ages. There’s something irresistible about hearing such a glamorous and unapologetically feminine presence speak so freely about something that’s everyday business for women, just to make a guy squirm.

A few gags in Hot Pursuit might make you unsure whether it’s OK to laugh and still be a card-carrying good person. When Riva casts a disparaging look at Cooper’s clumpy black regulation cop shoes and calls her “Officer Lesbian,” the joke isn’t in particularly good taste. But then, humor that worries too much about good taste is doomed to fail. Hot Pursuit goes for the risky laugh and then moves on to something else. Nothing is belabored or forced, and Vergara and Witherspoon, the tall and the tiny, revel in each other’s presence. Even when they’re bickering — at one point in full-throttle Spanish, accompanied by helpful subtitles — they’re a road-movie dream team. Not to mention that Riva is right about the shoes.

Directed by Anne Fletcher. Written by David Feeney and John Quaintance. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara, John Carroll Lynch, and Mike Birbiglia.