BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 4, 2007
Author's note: The movie The Hottest State, which had a limited opening several weeks ago, was supposed to be released more broadly two weeks ago. A few days before the opening, though, the studio announced that the film was being delayed, and would be released the subsequent week. Early last week, it was again delayed, with a planned opening this Friday. I double-checked with the studio that this date was certain and, when assured it was, finished this review. Then, a couple of days ago, the studio announced that this Friday was off, too, and that a new release date was "to be determined."
That's a long way of saying that, if you're looking for a movie to see this weekend, you can skip this review. The Hottest State is almost certainly not playing at a theatre near you. But, as it happens, that's the single nicest thing I have to say about the film.
Directed by Ethan Hawke. Co-starring Ethan Hawke. Adapted by Ethan Hawke from the autobiographical novel by... Ethan Hawke. If these words, which describe The Hottest State, do not fill you with dread, you're made of sterner stuff than I.
Like many people, I've generally found Hawke to be a personable enough onscreen presence, but something in his more evidently autobiographical roles--in Reality Bites, say, or Before Sunrise and Before Sunset--has given rise to ungenerous thoughts. Is he, perhaps, a little too convinced that his life experiences hold profundities from which we might all profit? Does he share his characters' maddening trait of explaining that, yes, he knows he's being a bit of a jerk--as if that ostentatious self-awareness gets him off the hook for being a jerk in the first place?
The Hottest State suggests the answer is an emphatic yes. The story of Hawke stand-in William Harding (Mark Webber), who moves to New York, falls in love with a girl, gets a place with her, gets dumped by her, and insists on telling us how it makes him feel for 117 minutes (trust me, you'll be counting them, too), it may be the most tiresome film of the young millennium.
The tone is set early, when William meets the beautiful Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full of Grace) in a bar. First, he tells her, "My heart is gold. What will you give me for it?" Moments later, he confesses, "I'm an actor, so I'm totally full of shit." And so it goes for the rest of the film: The earnest declaration of unfathomable emotion, followed by an admission that, yeah, I know, that must sound like an idiotic cliché. If William (and Hawke) could ever remain in that latter, rueful mood for more than 90 seconds at a time, the film might be able to go somewhere. But, for William, such stabs at wisdom and self-knowledge are basically cons, ways to buy a little more time to sell Sarah (and us) on further ecstatic declarations: "Since I met you, I can't operate in the world"; "She was human, the most human person I ever met, and that was sexy."
Within days of meeting, William and Sarah move in together--though, to his chagrin, she refuses to sleep with him. When he gets a film job in Mexico, however, the two of them head for the border early and share a week of passionate, nonstop lovemaking. ("Every part of her body was as wet as her mouth," he reveals, in an ungallant--and physiologically inconceivable--aside.) But when William returns home to New York after the film shoot, Sarah is frustrated by his possessiveness and breaks up with him. The latter half of the film is a bitter variation on the attack/retreat two-step of the former, as William alternately refuses to accept the rejection ("I just feel like I might not get over it") and apologizes for his constant misbehavior ("I'm not handling this too well, am I?").
Indeed, The Hottest State continues in this vein for so agonizingly long that viewers may begin to feel the movie is stalking them in much the same way William is stalking Sarah. Along with her, we pray that each inappropriate, importuning phone call might be the last; when, after barging into her apartment for another round of abuse and apologies, he begins to leave, we too feel a sense of relief as he closes the door--only to have it dashed at the last second when he pushes it back open with one last thing to get off his chest. If nothing else, Hawke has managed to recreate, with neurological immediacy, the sensation of being harassed by a selfish, clueless ex-lover.
Even as Hawke documents William's unraveling, he has no distance from it. He still seems to mistake brooding for depth, solipsism for self-awareness, and gaudy declarations of love for the thing itself. When, late in the movie, William travels to visit his estranged dad (played by Hawke) it is, ridiculously, the boy who lectures the man on life and love--a fitting metaphor for the movie's adolescent ideology. Better are the few scenes with William's mother (played by the marvelous Laura Linney), a woman who masks a lifetime of disappointment with a brittle smile and counsels William to do the same. (How very much more interesting a subject for a movie she might have made.)
But for William (and Hawke) quiet suffering is no suffering at all. William must shatter telephones and punch walls until his knuckles bleed and explain to anyone within earshot that his character flaws are really virtues, that he is just "too sensitive" or "too intense" for the cold, compromised world around him. Some of us were once boys like this, too. But somewhere along the way, at 17 or 21 or 25 or even 30, we grew out of it and moved on. Hawke, by contrast, apparently thinks it's vitally important that the world know that a girl broke his heart nearly twenty years ago. I suspect I'm not alone in being entirely unable to care less.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.