You know what annoys me? When people go after this generation of filmmakers — Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Jeffrey Blitz, et. al. — by calling their work a bunch of pseudo-pretentious nonsense. Respectfully, to suggest as much is plain moronic, but the real problem I have is the term “pseudo-pretentious.” Pretentious? Sure. Maybe. Perhaps, even. But you haven’t seen fucking “pseudo-pretentious” until you’ve witnessed The Hottest State, a film directed by a pseudo-pretentious Ethan Hawke based upon a pseudo-pretentious Ethan Hawke novel. It’s one thing to be obnoxiously pompous and showy, but it’s a whole different bag of ball peen cranial hammers to aspire to be pompous and showy and yet fail as miserably as Ethan Hawke does. Indeed, that whole “Ethan Hawke persona” that we’ve all gleaned over the years from countless different roles — in both good movies and bad — is seemingly 100 percent accurate: He’s a certifiable pseudo-pretentious windbag who wants so goddamn badly to be Gus Van Sant that it makes my spleen ache like a saxophone inside a sick tooth. And the biggest problem I have with it is not an outright dislike for his work, but a queasy brand of pity I feel for a writer/director who seems almost all too aware of just how third-rate he is comparatively. It’s like … like … Jewel showing up to a poetry reading at Maya Angelou’s house. She’s gotta know just how badly she’s going to embarrass herself, but you feel equal parts shame and reveremce for the brazen audacity it takes to get up there and avail her grade-school level vulnerabilities in front of a poet laureate.
I mean, Jesus Ethan: Surely, even you realize that the statement, “I wondered if sex was easier in Texas than it was in New York,” is not nearly as deep and insightful as you’d like it to be. So, for fuck’s sake: If you’re going to make a film with all the profundity of two eighth grade school girls passing giggly notes back and forth, at least have the sense to cast Brittany Snow and Zac Efron and market the damn thing to Disney tweeners, instead of the independent filmgoers he’s got to know will tear him apart like Oprah at a James-Frey-and-beefsteak convention. The man has made a few decent movies in his lifetime, and unless his sense of relativity has been knocked askew by his shitty facial growth, he must know that The Hottest State couldn’t possibly live up to even the most pretentious of Linklater’s works. Hell, this movie wouldn’t stand up to the works of Paul Haggis, who at least knows his audience is comprised of moviegoers who want to look smart without actually having to put any thought into being intelligent.
And make no mistake: The Hottest State is bad. I mean, Keanu Reeves in Dogstar bad. But, more than that — and regardless of how you feel about Hawke as an actor — it’s just embarrassing to watch this display of naïve hopefulness. It’s like witnessing an acne-ridden chubby tuba player spill out his heart in the middle of class to the head cheerleader and then gawp at the crestfallen look on his face when he realizes that his life is not Angus.
And bless my goddamn grits: The Hottest State is a conversation film, so for nearly two hours, there’s nothing to distract your attention away from the awful dialogue, which includes brilliance like this: “I can’t sleep. I wake up to a voice inside my head that calls myself a faggot.” No distracting explosions. No plot twists. No real narrative to speak of. In fact, Ethan Hawke takes 112 minutes to tell you exactly what Sting expresses in under four minutes: If you love someone, set them free … especially if they don’t love you back, otherwise it starts to look kind of creepy.
Indeed, Hawke seems to want very badly to create a natural continuation of Before Sunrise, only in The Hottest State the “profound” connection is made before the opening credits have even finished, and the rest of the movie seems to track the consequences. William (Mark Webber), a hard-luck kid from Texas who moved to NYC when he was eight and wants to be an actor, meets Sara (Catalina Sandina Moreno) and gives her his jacket. “It was Wednesday when we met. Saturday by the time I asked her to move in. And by the time Sunday came, I had flowers in my apartment and hummus in my refrigerator. I remember waking up that Sunday; I don’t think I ever slept. I just sat there thinking, ‘Goddamn, this must be what praying is like.’”
And if you’re praying for death, it probably is.
Initially, Sara is afraid to have sex, for fear of falling in love with William, a statement she makes seconds before stripping down and standing in front of William to state with a weird nonchalance: “I want to fuck you.” So, William falls in love with Sara. Like, really, really falls in love, in the only way an Ethan Hawke scripted character could: “I wanted to tell her I loved her. I loved the way she made me feel even when I was miserable. I loved the way she bought a dress. The way she made love in bathrooms. The way she ate chocolate. I loved her mother … I loved every thought she ever had.” Awwwwwpuke.
And, after six glorious days and a failed engagement, Sara breaks up with William because she doesn’t want to be tied down to a man. So, William does what any guy in his position might do, I suppose: He stalks her. At first, he tries to Lloyd Dobler her into submission by screaming up at her window through a traffic cone. And when that fails, he just pesters the living hell out of her, showing up at her apartment and leaving desperate messages. When that fails him, he solicits the advice of his mother, Jesse (Laura Linney, who must have lost the Uma/Ethan divorce pool), who offers this sage advice, “Don’t be so moody. A lot of bad shit is gonna happen to you. People aren’t gonna love you back … The root of depression is being too self-involved and the cure is to read.” My suggestion: Don’t read Ethan Hawke’s novels.
After that, William basically wallows in his own self pity for, like, an hour of the film, fake threatening to kill himself and punching holes in walls. Finally, he decides to go back to Texas to confront his shitty deadbeat father, played by Hawke himself (of course), in the hopes, not that his father will apologize for abandoning him as a child, but that he will tell him how to win Sara back. His father only has this to say about lost love, “If it hurt real bad, like a bone fracture or something, it’ll ache when it rains.”
Damn, Ethan. Damn.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
The Hottest State / Dustin Rowles
Film | August 22, 2007 | Comments ()