‘Hot Air’ Is Chock-Full of…Well, Hot Air

by Warren Cantrell on August 22, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Swiss Fist]

A good-natured attempt to humanize a very real monstrosity running rampant through the current hell-scape that is this cursed year of 2019, Hot Air doesn’t stumble so much as it breaks both legs and suffers a heart attack right out of the starting gate. Positioned as a biting satire of conservative opinion-making, the film suffers from a real-world reality problem that isn’t entirely its fault, but is a hitch in its giddy up all the same. And while solid performances and directing keep the effort engaging and interesting, the basic conceit of Hot Air holds it back.    

The movie opens with conservative radio host Lionel Macomb (Steve Coogan) broadcasting a series of deplorable dog whistles that touch on a number of ghoulish topics from immigration fearmongering to old fashioned misogyny. Reviled by the informed masses (as evidenced by the protests outside of his Manhattan studio), but well-rewarded by way of money and influence, Lionel might just be playing a character on the air, but he’s all-in on the illusion. Cloistered in his Upper East Side mega-condo with personal chefs and assistants, the right-wing opinion-maker has turned his hard-hearted political ideology into a dedicated lifestyle.

A wrench is thrown into Lionel’s works when the teenaged niece he’s never met, Tess (Taylor Russell), arrives on his doorstep one day demanding to stay with him. Tess’ mom is Lionel’s estranged sister, who has had her share of troubles and is working through a fresh set in rehab: hence Tess’ sudden appearance. And while the radio show host does his best to talk his way out of babysitting duty, Tess’ threats to put Lionel on blast via Twitter convince the man to reconsider. He’s been suffering in the ratings, after all, and with a looming contract renegotiation on the horizon, Lionel can’t afford the bad press.

It’s a decent first act set-up, and director Frank Coraci does a fine job keeping Hot Air moving along at a good clip throughout it. A frequent collaborator of Adam Sandler, Coraci leans into the somewhat vanilla and saccharine that highlights other films of theirs like Click, The Wedding Singer, and Blended, here. These are all movies about lost men who need to connect with someone or something emotionally to grow into their full potential, and Hot Air is no different. This set up and these other movies work to varying degrees, but using Lionel as this film’s guide through the journey sets it up for failure. He is a bad person making decisions for all the worst reasons, and at every turn throughout the majority of this 100-minute movie, Lionel is making a case for the validity of this behavior.   

When Tess confronts her uncle about his unethical political stances and abrasive attack-first posture, he brushes the concerns off as naïve. “People want memes and soundbites…No one wears a t-shirt that says, ‘I love nuance,’” he claps back. And while Lionel does experience some personal growth as a result of Tess’ presence in his life, it never moves his professional needle all that much. Who Lionel is as a public figure (a bottom-feeding trash-person) defines him as a character, so any growth he experiences throughout Hot Air feels like an encouragement to humanize the people that currently demonize the weakest and most vulnerable.  

It’s worth asking, then: who is this movie for? Liberals who despise the Lionel Macombs of the world will spend the majority of Hot Air hating the lead character, while conservatives who gobble his kind of tripe up will no doubt scoff at the inevitable turn and “message” of the picture. Without going too deep into spoiler territory, Lionel does progress as a character by the end, and is given sufficient backstory and history to flesh out his character into a fully realized and sympathetic individual, but that begs the question: what’s the point of it all?

Lionel and his real-world counterparts don’t traffic in truth or solutions, they feed off the impotent anger of the vocal minority. By humanizing these people and projecting a farcical evolution of their viewpoints that simply doesn’t occur in real life, Coraci and the others behind Hot Air normalize this behavior and these personalities. If the Tucker Carlsons, Rush Limbaughs, or Bill O’Reillys of the world started to come around and push back against the insanity they are peddling, that might be one thing, but this doesn’t happen in real life. What the audience is left with, then, is a fantasy that bears no resemblance to reality, which presupposes a decency and capacity for growth that simply doesn’t exist in the universe this movie occupies.

Neve Campbell does great work as Lionel’s beleaguered girlfriend and publicist who becomes an ally of Tess, and Skylar Astin steals every scene he’s in as Gareth Whitley, the overly pious talk radio competition Lionel is struggling against in the ratings. These characters are well drawn, and fit into the calculus of Hot Air nicely, yet they are fighting an uphill struggle, here. As a film, this might have all played a bit better in 2010, when the lunacy of Lionel and everything he represents felt a little more distant and toothless. This is 2019, however, and the Lionel Macombs of the world don’t deserve the sympathetic drama treatment any more than they do a spot on “Dancing With the Stars,” lest this kind of behavior become normalized and part of the accepted national discourse.

And that’s too bad, because Coogan, Russell, Campbell, and Astin all do great work, as does Coraci by making Hot Air a thoroughly enjoyable little trifle. That doesn’t make it a good movie for 2019, however, any more than it makes it a bad one for a time that isn’t a raging dumpster fire of history. Indeed, when it comes to actual hot air, that’s the kind that this movie traffics in.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.

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