What’s a Smart Actor Like Reese Witherspoon Doing in a Disaster Like ‘Hot Pursuit’?

When the first trailer hit for the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara vehicle Hot Pursuit a couple months back, the universal reaction seemed a widespread, “But… why?” For Vergara, it’s almost understandable — an above-title studio starring role for a charismatic performer who’s usually stuck in supporting roles. But why on earth was Reese Witherspoon — an Oscar winner and recent nominee, one of our savviest and smartest actor/producers — wasting her time with an aggressively stupid buddy-cop throwaway? Did she owe somebody a favor? (Like, a serious, fine-you-saved-my-life-so-I’ll-star-in-your-terrible-movie favor?)

The movie itself doesn’t offer many more answers. It’s a woefully pedestrian effort, with Witherspoon and Vergara playing the broadest variations on two overworked types: the by-the-book cop and the materialistic trophy wife who’s not as dumb as you think. (The script is by David Feeney and John Quaintance, showing all the insight into hilarious lady comedy you’d expect from writers whose credits include According to Jim, 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, and Bad Judge.) They’re thrown together when an FBI witness pickup goes awry; Vergara and her husband were to testify against a big drug kingpin, so it’s left to Witherspoon’s uptight fuzz to ward off crooked cops and evil henchmen and deliver her witness.

Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon in "Hot Pursuit"

It actually starts off well enough, with an inspired opening-credit sequence in which we see Witherspoon’s character, daughter of a cop, basically being raised in the back of a squad car. It’s a clever device, sold by the remarkable parade of young Witherspoon lookalikes, but you get an idea where this whole thing’s headed by the time they arrive at the first “joke”: a beautiful prostitute is placed in the back with her, and when she opens her mouth (you won’t believe this), a deep male voice comes out.

That’s the kind of gag that might’ve garnered a surprise laugh, I dunno, 30 or so years ago, making it an appropriate note to begin a picture in which every single element — the premise, the writing, the direction, the acting, the telegraphing of the overcooked score, the car chases, the drug-dealer subplot, the half-assed romantic interest, the wacky outtakes over the end credits, the climax that dispenses with the jokes altogether and plays the action straight-up, as if anybody gives a shit — conspires to make it feel like a movie you rented one lonely Saturday night back in 1987 and immediately regretted.

Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon in "Hot Pursuit"

But there’s another, more recent movie that Hot Pursuit brings to mind, and which might help explain Witherspoon’s presence in it: Paul Feig’s The Heat. That 2013 hit similarly mined the tropes and conventions of the ‘80s and ‘90s buddy-cop comedy, but gave them a fresh shot of brash energy and comic inventiveness, and turned the genre on its head by reconfiguring it for two female protagonists. Hot Pursuit performs no such subversion. It’s just a copy of a twist, a Heat rip-off — most egregiously in the matter of Witherspoon’s strict, rule-spouting cop, a total Xerox of Sandra Bullock’s character in the Feig film.

And if you start to look at Witherspoon’s recent choices through the prism of Bullock’s, they begin to make a bit more sense. Mainstream Hollywood has rarely figured out what to do with Ms. Witherspoon; though immensely gifted and (in the right role, like Election) funny as hell, she was always too interesting and intelligent for the dopey, vanilla rom-coms she kept getting stuffed into during the ‘00s (Sweet Home Alabama, Just Like Heaven, Four Christmases, How Do You Know). She’ll turn 40 next year, and we all know how awesome movies are about providing interesting roles to actresses of that age — and Witherspoon has wisely started producing films for herself and others, doing what she can to rectify that problem.

Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat"

Bullock seems to have set forth a path that Witherspoon’s following, crafting a persona that’s more about playing toughness and strength than the ingénue. In 2010, Bullock made The Blind Side, a take-no-shit leading role in a film based on a nonfiction bestseller, and won an Oscar; last year, Witherspoon made Wild, a take-no-shit leading role in a film based on a nonfiction bestseller, and nearly won an Oscar too. The line from The Heat to Hot Pursuit is even clearer — and Witherspoon hired Bullock’s The Proposal director Anne Fletcher to boot. Maybe these are just coincidences, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Witherspoon’s doing a space drama next.

All of this can accumulate into an explanation of why Witherspoon wanted to do a movie like this one; still up for grabs is why it had to be this particular, dreadful iteration of that movie. To be sure, she and Vergara are good together, generating a sharp, improvisational rhythm in the rare moments they manage to escape their script’s smotheringly formulaic beats; there’s one bit where Witherspoon gets accidentally coked up, and it’s legitimately funny (at least until they hammer it into paste). And in spite of some mugging and a clangy accent, she’s super-likable — even in a pitcher of weak tea like this. But if an actor this skilled and smart, generating her own projects, can still only manage to come up with a rancid pile of hot garbage like Hot Pursuit, then we’re in real trouble.

Hot Pursuit opens tomorrow.