- - Thursday, May 7, 2015

When we first meet Officer Cooper, the perky Texas police officer played by Reese Witherspoon in “Hot Pursuit,” she’s a kind of oddball figure.

The daughter of a police officer, she’s obsessed with procedural minutiae — the jargon and legal technicalities of enforcing the law.

Despite having been raised around police interactions with a motley crew of criminal types, most of whom one might assume would speak figuratively on occasion, she also has a difficult time understanding impressionistic language: Common figures of speech confuse her — she once Tasered a young man for yelling “Shotgun!” as he was about to get into a car — and she struggles with sarcasm and jokes.

The movie suffers from a similar problem: It seems baffled by the concept of humor.

Allegedly a comedy, “Hot Pursuit” substitutes obnoxious behavior and loud antics for jokes, and seems predicated largely on the hope that frantic shouting and the occasional pratfall will somehow generate laughs.

Part of the problem is that it’s wildly inconsistent: The comic quirks Cooper displays in the film’s opening moments melt away frequently and without explanation throughout the film. Indeed, she becomes remarkably verbally dexterous whenever the movie’s jokey shenanigans require it.

That turns out to be fairly often after she gets mixed up with Daniella Riva, the wife of an informant set to testify against a powerful drug lord.

Riva, played by Sofia Vergara of the ABC-TV series “Modern Family,” is as overbearing and emotionally charged as Cooper is duty-driven and literal-minded.

The contrast between the two, and the friction it generates, serves as the source of most of the movie’s supposed humor, as the two end up stuck together on a perilous road trip after Riva’s husband is killed and Cooper takes it upon herself to deliver Riva to testify in his place.

Whatever laughs one might find in this formulaic odd-couple setup are quickly drained by the script’s repetitive structure. Almost every scene takes the same shape: Cooper wants Riva to do something. Riva refuses. Then the two end up in an argument in which Cooper absurdly stands her ground while Riva pouts and hurls jokey insults that come across like cast-offs from a sitcom writer’s room.

Miss Vergara delivers her lines with exaggerated contempt, which is probably the best reaction to a script as lame as this one.

The bickering isn’t funny so much as irritating, and the inevitable comic chaos, which at one point has the duo sneaking by a police checkpoint wearing a deer carcass, gives the proceedings an air of desperate artificiality.

The plotting, too, is aimless and arbitrary. A potential love interest appears in the back of a truck halfway through, courts Cooper’s interest for a few moments, then disappears until the final scene.

At no point does any character seem like a believable person, or even an engaging comic creation.

The movie’s deep lack of humanity is ironic, given that one of the recurring themes is that the male characters are condescending to the female protagonists.

Yet director Anne Fletcher, working from a screenplay by David Feeney and John Quaintance, is barely any more respectful.

It’s not just the tired jokes about feminine hygiene and female relationships, or the half-baked love-interest subplot — it’s the lazy indifference with which the film and its story are crafted, and the general sense of disinterest with which treats both its characters and its audience.

So when “Hot Pursuit” seemed to suggest that its main characters deserved better from the world, which had dismissed them as not worthy of empathy or understanding, I could only nod along — and wish the movie had taken that same idea to heart.

★1/2

TITLE: “Hot Pursuit”

CREDITS: Directed by Anne Fletcher; screenplay by David Feeney and John Quaintance

RATING: Rated PG-13 for language, sexual innuendo, violence

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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