By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 10, 2015 at 3:56 PM

I don’t really want to go to bat for "Hot Pursuit." Even bunting seems like too much effort in its favor. After all, the new buddy comedy is not what most would traditionally call "good"; it’s cliché and contrived, indifferently directed and half of the leading duo seems to be auditioning for the role of new Fran Drescher. It even ends with a blooper reel, the Hollywood comedy’s classic method of apologizing for the past 90 minutes.

So no, "Hot Pursuit" isn’t a particularly strong film, and admittedly there’s not much of a rousing defense to be made for it (get that pull quote ready for the ad campaign!). But there is one element – and a fairly significant one at that – in the movie’s corner: Reese Witherspoon. I will go to bat for her delightful, amusingly bright-eyed performance here, one that serves as just enough of a sparkplug to almost single-handedly get this otherwise tired comedic vehicle where it’s going.

Witherspoon plays by-the-books Officer Rose Cooper, born and bred for the job thanks to growing up in the backseat of her cop father’s squad car and serving as his unofficial partner (chronicled in the film's opening – and best – sequence). Cut to the future, however, and her career has unfortunately stalled. The Cooper name is now synonymous in the station for hilarious failure, mostly thanks to a literal hot mess of an overreaction that left one poor dude accidentally tazed to a sizzling crisp and her behind the evidence desk, far from active duty.

The police chief ("Zodiac" killer John Carroll Lynch) pulls Cooper out from the counter and gives her a mission: She is to help escort the brassy and buxom Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara from "Modern Family" and about 25 ad spokesperson roles) into witness protection so she and her drug dealer-turned-informant husband can testify against cartel leader Vicente Cortez. Surprisingly, in a unique twist on the usual formula, everything goes perfectly, the mission is an event-free success and nobody learns valuable life lessons while reluctantly bonding with their polar opposite and getting involved in goofy action comedy hijinks.

Bah, no, of course not. Both corrupt cops and vicious cartel hit men show up to the Riva household, kill Cooper’s partner and Riva’s husband, and send the two angrily different women on the lamb. Thus begins a cross-county chase, with the amateur Thelma and Louise duo hoping to get to safety before the bad guys kill them – or before the mismatched pair of stiff and sassy kills each other out of wacky frustration first. Unless some sort of begrudging mutual respect develops over the course of their time on the road together … but who ever heard of that happening in a movie like this? Absurd.

But really, from the story to the gags to the direction, there are few to no surprises to be found in "Hot Pursuit." The screenplay from David Feeney and John Quaintance recycles all of the trite buddy cop clichés. The audience can pretty much set a timer to the plot beats: rough and distrustful opening repartee, the corrupt cops reveal, the tight situation escaped thanks to a character’s change of heart, a mild understanding bond soon split apart but reunited by the climax. Of course the uptight lady character just needs to meet a man to help her loosen up (groan … ), and of course the loud, non-serious goof has some sad backstory.

Even by the time it reaches its third act twists and reveals – which, once again, will surprise very few in the crowd – the script, like Officer Cooper, is all tiringly by the books and just as stiff. There’s one potential turn that edges near unexpected, with a character turning out much more diabolical than hinted at, but it’s handled so muddily that it makes little actual impact.

Meanwhile, director Anne Fletcher ("The Proposal," "Step Up") moves the various predictable plot contrivances – dopily dropped cell phones, obvious deceits and so forth – with a bland clunk. "Hot Pursuit" serves as her first real foray into anything resembling action, so it’s not surprising that those sequences fall short of much real excitement or fun. But the comedy is only given generic, serviceable work as well, a problem considering the one-note and exhausted material – including an underwear joke that only further draws the unflattering comparison to 2013’s very familiar "The Heat" – could use all the help it could get.

Comic aid does arrive, thankfully, in the form of Witherspoon. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the actress in a straight-up comedy role; since her Oscar win for "Walk the Line," she’s done mostly respectable dramas ("Mud," "Wild"). The days of "Legally Blonde" seem far away, but "Hot Pursuit" finds her channeling much of that breakout comedy charm and charisma. She brings a peppery, perky energy to Cooper’s awkward, nerdy stiffness – whether laughing off an everyday person’s misunderstanding of infraction technicalities or prattling off rules and codes. The highlight is when she gets caught in a cocaine cloud – long story – and starts feverishly marching around a convenience store flinging items around and setting a land speed record for words.

It’s a genuinely funny and entertaining spark of a performance that manages to snag a fair amount of laughs from material that doesn’t really deserve them – especially when the jokes turn toward mocking her height (which … sure?) and her apparent mannishness (which … huh?).

She also doesn’t deserve Vergara as a co-star. In general, the actress' comedic stylings hit the same notes of loud and shrill and loud and one-note and did I mention loud, because LOUD! Much of her shtick relies on jokes about her being attractive and her thick Latina accent delivered at a high decibel, and the humor in "Hot Pursuit" isn’t exactly challenging her to stretch any further. The result is an often annoyingly hammy, rarely funny performance that tends to take the script’s typical buddy comedy bickering and push it quickly to a level that confuses high volume with high comedy.

But amongst it all, there’s Witherspoon, scoring scattered laughs, keeping things fun and keeping "Hot Pursuit" at least bordering lukewarm. A lot of the jokes may emphasize how short the actress is, but in a movie that’s well below her, she stands tall.   

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.