This weekend Reese Witherspoon and Sofía Vergara play a by-the-book cop and the widow of a drug boss in the comedy Hot Pursuit. The unlikely duo hit the road, teaming up to outrun crooked cops and a murderous cartel. “Right now we can’t trust anyone but each other,” says Reese as they crack wise and dodge bullets.
It’s a movie that follows in the long tradition of Hollywood buddy comedies.
There’s an argument to be made that Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy originated buddy comedies long before Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis donned dresses and camped it up in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. For my money, however, the Billy Wilder film about two musicians who witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and flee the state disguised as women set the template for the modern buddy movie.
The basic formula is there — colliding personalities, gibes and comic conflict between the two actors — but more important than any of that is the chemistry between Lemmon and Curtis. Even though every buddy picture relies on tension between the leads, sparks also have to fly between them or the whole thing will fall flat.
Brett Ratner, director of Rush Hour 1, 2 and 3—which paired Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan to great effect—calls interesting chemistry between actors “an explosion in a bottle” and says it’s crucial to the success of any buddy pic.
Since Some Like It Hot, producers have paired up a laundry list of actors searching for the perfect mix. Lemmon and Walter Matthau were the journeymen of the genre, co-starring in six buddy pictures ranging from the sublime—The Odd Couple, which features the classic buddy picture one-liner, “I’m a neurotic nut, but you’re crazy.”— to the ridiculous — Grumpier Old Men.
The female buddy comedy is a more elusive beast. Recently Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock teamed as a tough-talking street cop and uptight, lone wolf FBI agent to bring down a murderous drug dealer in The Heat and in the 1980s Bette Midler was the Queen of the form, pairing off with Shelley Long for Outrageous Fortune and with Lily Tomlin for Big Business in which both stars played dual roles, making it a buddy comedy times two. “Two’s company. Four’s a riot,” read the movie tagline.
There are others, dating back to 1937’s Stage Door, but there is no debating that Hollywood has been slow to feature female bonding as a subject of buddy movies. It’s wild there are two man-and-his-dog buddy movies—Turner and Hootch and K9—but so few featuring women. Despite the box office success of several female buddy comedies sequels have been as rare as hen’s teeth. For instance, Vulture.com points out that of the duelling buddy comedies released on April 25, 2008—Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Baby Mama and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay—Fey and company grossed $60 million, while Harold and friends made $38 million and yet the guys laughed all the way to another sequel while Baby Mama remains a one off.
Hollywood is finally warming to the idea of female driven comedies, so perhaps this weekend Witherspoon and the highest paid woman on television can generate enough box office dough to warrant another team-up. In the movie biz money usually speaks louder than anything, including gender.