The Hottest State is one of the most inauthentic films I've seen in a long time. Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, and from his own novel no less, the film plays out like some version of hell where everyone is being forced to perform in an acting class skit that will never end. The story follows William (Mark Webber), a 20-year-old aspiring actor who is hanging around the Manhattan bar scene when he runs into Sarah, the girl of his dreams. The casting of Sarah is the movie's fatal flaw. As written, she's an aspiring singer who is gaga over William, but Catalina Sandino Moreno is an actress who, it's clear from the get-go, can't sing a note and worse, seems ready to climb the walls to get away from her co-star throughout the picture. I've seen more sexual chemistry from two doorknobs. Watching this mess, you have to believe that Ethan Hawke, as talented as he is, must have realized he was making a colossal turkey but was too far into the thing to back out.
And that's only the start of it. The Hottest State is structurally odd -- something that's sometimes a necessity in the case of book adaptations, but especially true in this case, since what begins as a romance ultimately takes on the trappings of a thriller in the third act. I won't go into specifics in case you plan to see it for yourself, but let's just say that if the entire movie were on the same wavelength as the third act, I think we'd actually have an interesting, tough little film here. I also think Hawke must have known this too on some level, because it's only in the third act that his personality as a director begins to shine through -- interesting and creative camera choices, powerful acting moments and an earned level of tension that are present only during this part of the movie. The first two-thirds of the film are a cloying, obnoxious romantic fable about two young people bouncing around in Manhattan and down in Mexico, lounging around and pretending, for our benefit, that they actually love each other.
There's also another layer of weirdness that must be addressed with this film. You know the old rule about how you shouldn't act around dogs or kids, lest you risk being upstaged? Well, here's a new rule -- don't cast Ethan Hawke and Laura Linney in supporting roles as battling, divorced parents in the movie and then expect me to be less interested in that than the torpid A-story about a flaky, unconvincing love affair. It's an understatement to say that the times when Linney and Hawke are on-screen are the high points of this film -- it seems more accurate to say that they own the film as if it's their story, and some malevolent editor just decided to hack their screentime down considerably. In his small role as William's young father, who abandoned the boy many years ago, leaving him with nothing except some silly 'remember where you came from' advice, Hawke reminds us of his natural strengths as an actor, and how hard he can bite into a part that he actually knows well and can bottle himself into.
As for the A-story, about fatherless William and his granite-faced love interest, there's really never a single moment between them that feels true, or a scene they share that feels anything but staged. Especially jarring is a scene of spectacular bad acting by Sonia Braga, who portrays Sarah's mother. William and Sarah make a trip to visit her in Connecticut, and instead of a mother they seem to have dropped in on some kind of hopped-up Avon Lady who is incapable of shutting up for two seconds. Who signed off on this performance? It gives the notorious Fiona Shaw performance in The Black Dahlia a run for its money in pure, movie-stopping badness. Most of the other scenes between William and Sarah are a variation on one theme: him trying to impress her and elicit some feeling and she looking at him like a man from outer space, while inexplicably going on trips with him and agreeing to his plans for their life together. If she is so repulsed, why does she go along with these things?
I'd love to see the raw footage for The Hottest State, because I have a feeling that there's actually an interesting movie that could be made out of it. All you'd need to do, really, is cut down the screentime of the leads by at least half, and use every moment filmed between Laura Linney and Ethan Hawke, instead of confining them in small chunks of the movie. Let those performances lead the movie. You'd also have to restructure the beginning a little to at least provide some minimal foreshadowing to the turn in third act, and then follow that turn through to some kind of natural conclusion in the finale. You'd have to eliminate Sonia Braga completely. You'd also have to take special care to minimize the number of reaction shots given to Catalina Sandino Moreno, since each one is almost distracting to the viewer, since she seems to not have a clue what emotion she's supposed to be expressing. You know what? This would actually be way too much work. The movie's not worth it.