Early in “Hot Pursuit,” when the characters played by Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara are on the run in a classic convertible, it’s easy to think of that iconic duo from “Thelma & Louise.”
It’s even easier to hope they suffer a similar fate.
There’s nothing in “Hot Pursuit” to justify the price of a Redbox rental, let alone a full-price movie ticket. It’s little more than 87 minutes of bickering, embarrassing physical comedy, lazy insults and man shaming. But at least it’s awful in a genial way, compared to that angry, dead-inside feeling you got from watching “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.”
Officer Cooper (Witherspoon) — yes, for the majority of the movie, her first name is Officer — grew up in the back seat of her dad’s squad car. When a first date with a guy she met on ChristianMingle.com goes badly, she brandishes her gun. And she’s been exiled to evidence lockup for having tasered the mayor’s son and set him on fire because she overheard him claiming his buddy’s passenger seat by “calling shotgun,” and she thought that meant he was armed.
But when it comes time to transport crime boss Felipe Riva (Vincent Laresca) and his wife, Daniela (Vergara), across Texas to testify against a drug lord, Cooper is brought in because regulations require the presence of a female officer. You know, in case Mrs. Riva has any “lady problems” along the way.
Before Cooper and the detective (Richard T. Jones) in charge can take custody of the Rivas, they’re ambushed, and Mr. Riva and the detective are killed. When Cooper and Mrs. Riva — for the majority of the movie, her first name is Mrs. — flee the scene, they’re branded as fugitives.
For reasons that may be as simple as the fact that Cooper’s a cop and Riva’s the widow of a crime boss, the two never get along. But the odd couple pairing — Riva’s tall and sexy; Cooper’s “teeny tiny” and boyish — never pays off because neither character even remotely resembles a human being.
Cooper comes off like an asexual robot, commandeering everything in sight and relying on awkward syntax, as when she asks Riva if she’s “concealing a communication device in your chestal area.” Riva, meanwhile, is basically “Modern Family’s” Gloria cranked up to 11 and stripped of any likability.
But at least Vergara is on familiar ground for her first big-screen vehicle, because so much of “Hot Pursuit” feels like a sitcom. Although not the clever, Emmy-winning kind to which she’s accustomed.
Directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”), “Hot Pursuit” was written by sitcom veterans David Feeney and John Quaintance. They worked together on Fox’s gone-too-soon “Ben and Kate,” but their combined resumes include the likes of “According to Jim,” “Whitney,” “Bad Judge” and nine episodes of “Joey.” Raise your hand if you knew there even were nine episodes of “Joey.”
“Hot Pursuit” paints its male characters as idiots. Cooper and Riva escape from a couple of crooked detectives (Michael Mosley, Matthew Del Negro) — fully grown, adult detectives, mind you — by explaining menstruation and grossing them out.
Yet in most cases, it makes its leading ladies demean themselves to drive home that point. When they need to pay for a new wardrobe at a convenience store without being recognized, Riva somehow manages to expose even more cleavage than usual to distract the cashier. And when they’re held at gunpoint by a farmer (Jim Gaffigan), they make out — awkwardly and horribly — so he won’t call the police.
Not surprisingly for a movie that tries to wring comedy out of raccoon herpes and performing the Heimlich maneuver on a dog, Gaffigan gets one of its most genuine laughs simply by exclaiming, after he injures a finger, “My banjo hand!”
“Hot Pursuit” pulls off a couple of amusing bits involving the leads, but there are far too few to justify spoiling them.
Witherspoon knows good material. She developed “Wild” and “Gone Girl.” But this is about as far from good as she’ll hopefully ever stray. It barely even qualifies as material.
For some of you, the sight of the curvaceous Vergara wrestling with Witherspoon or running around in a “Butter My Biscuit” T-shirt will be enough.
But for everyone else, “Hot Pursuit” is a hot mess.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @life_onthecouch