Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon in Hot PursuitHOT PURSUIT

All movies provide at least one reason to feel grateful, because even the worst movies eventually, mercifully end. Director Anne Fletcher's action comedy Hot Pursuit provides exactly one reason to feel grateful.

How did this happen? How did Reese Witherspoon, coming off the career high of Wild, agree to not only star in but co-produce this staggeringly unfunny, demeaning vehicle that spends its whole running length making her and screen partner Sofia Vergara look like absolute imbeciles? It goes without saying that Witherspoon and Vergara can be charming and inventive comediennes, despite the former's many bad choices in material and the latter's increasingly tired Modern Family antics. But the hatefully insipid scenarios and senseless characters that Flecther's outing sticks them with bring out the worst in the performers, who appear to believe that constant screeching will atone for Hot Pursuit's complete lack of laughs. The movie isn't Dumb & Dumber; it's Shrill & Shriller.

It's not worth getting into - like, at all - but the plot finds Witherspoon's by-the-book police officer having to get Vergara's pampered wife of a drug-cartel informant into protective custody before they're gunned down by mob enforcers and/or a pair of corrupt cops. If you remember the 1988 buddy comedy Midnight Run with Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, it's kind of like that, if Midnight Run were unbelievably terrible. Bossy little Reese - who, astoundingly, can't even maintain an exaggerated Southern accent here - barks orders that are routinely ignored, busty Sofia teeters around on high heels in the midst of foot chases, and through it all the leads never stop shrieking at each other; even their routine conversations are louder than Avengers: Age of Ultron. The casting, obviously, is meant to convey "comically mismatched," but in addition to being individually irritating, Witherspoon and Vergara exude so little shared chemistry that you'd almost think they were in entirely separate, equally unenjoyable movies. (As nothing about the film made me smile, let alone chuckle, I bolted the auditorium as soon as the end credits began, and consequently missed out the accompanying blooper reel. I'll learn to live with the loss.)

It's unclear, however, whether any performers could've salvaged this wretched screenplay by David Feeney and John Quaintance, which trots out such high-lar-ious high jinks as our heroines making an escape through a tiny bathroom window (look at Vergara getting stuck like Winnie-the-Pooh!) and Witherspoon infiltrating a party by dressing in drag (check out her resemblance to Justin Bieber!). And while I hardly expected directorial finesse from the helmer of 27 Dresses and The Proposal, aren't female stars in Hollywood ill-served enough without Fletcher exacerbating the problem? Did her camera need to spend quite so much time lasciviously ogling Vergara's cleavage? And when the stars pretend to be lesbians to distract Jim Gaffigan's gun-totin' redneck, did Fletcher really need to compound the humiliation by shooting their awkward near-make-out in porn-y slow-motion? Beginning with the puerile double entendre of its title, Hot Pursuit is offensive for plenty of reasons, but its humiliation of two frequently gifted actresses is easily the most egregious. For 90 minutes, you're given nothing to focus on but a pair of boobs.

 

Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils MariaCLOUDS OF SILS MARIA

Whether it was merely an accident or an ingenious act of counter-programming - or perhaps corrective-programming - I can't say. But on the same day that national cineplexes foisted Hot Pursuit on us, Iowa City's FilmScene began its run of Clouds of Sils Maria, writer/director Olivia Assayas' sublime psychodrama that showers Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart with all the respect, breathing room, and performance opportunities denied to Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara. Binoche portrays Maria Enders, a legendary stage and film star who's about to headline the revival of a theatrical production that made her career 20 years earlier, now playing the middle-aged lover of the ingénue figure she previously enacted. Stewart portrays Valentine, Maria's beleaguered yet composed personal assistant who juggles her boss' cell phones and runs lines with her in a remote cabin in the Swiss Alps. And for the duration of Assayas' penetrating and hugely entertaining character study - a French production with dialogue almost entirely in English - there was nowhere I'd have rather been than with these two entrancing, powerful women who compose what might be the most exciting pair of female leads since Thelma & Louise ... or at least since The Heat. (If you haven't watched that one in a while, you should. Bullock and McCarthy really are awesome together.)

Clouds of Sils Maria, its metaphorical title (suggesting ominous weather) taken from the "Maloja Snake" cloud formation that occasionally twists within the Alps, is about many things: the fear of aging and irrelevance plaguing actors, and particularly female actors; youthful impatience and the struggle for credibility; the perniciousness of superhero movies and our TMZ-obsessed culture. (Chloë Grace Moretz plays Maria's soon-to-be co-star Jo-Ann, and appears to be having a blast riffing on damaged starlets of the Lindsay Lohan variety.) The movie's themes, however, don't come off as heavy-handed, capitalized Themes, because Binoche's and Stewart's instinctive, playful, beautifully calibrated partnership keeps you continually in the moment; you're too engulfed in the stars' handling of the text to bother looking for subtext. (But hoo-boy is that subtext fun to wrestle with on the drive home. I'll need to see Assayas' film a couple more times to make a firm judgment, but based on what we hear and see, I'm reasonably sure that a case can be made for one of its major characters not even existing.) Binoche, who's somehow more radiant at 51 than most human beings are at 21, is an utter marvel. The vainglorious Maria is deeply intimidating one moment and pitifully childish the next, yet Binoche makes complete emotional sense of all of her contradictions, and keeps surprising you with small, humane touches that make you adore Maria despite knowing better; Binoche even manages to pull of a hilarious spit-take in character.

And it's no overstatement to say that Stewart matches her scene for scene, just as she did, in a much smaller role, opposite Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Stewart is so fully connected to Valentine's seemingly inexhaustible patience, especially when indulging Maria in her egocentric tirades, that her silences are as expressive as her rich, thoughtful readings, with the added benefit of also being deliciously mysterious. (You keep waiting for Valentine's façade to crack, and are a little afraid of what might happen if it does.) Though he overdoes it with the Pachelbel Canon and his jabs at Hollywood feel a bit fraudulent - Jo-Ann's talk-show appearance is accompanied by a strangely incongruous laugh track - Assayas' direction is generally exquisite, employing superb long takes and an exhilarating blackout structure that, with supreme wit, keeps depriving us of traditional scene-cappers. But even his expert work and Clouds of Sils Maria's funny, trenchant, haunting script wouldn't mean much without Binoche and Stewart, whose performances, fittingly, leave you floating on air.

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