Oh, good, here’s the lefty British comic Steve Coogan to give us his take on American right-wing talk radio. Let’s all settle in for some deep insights.
The comedy-drama is dismally titled Hot Air. No, seriously. That’s what they came up with. Coogan’s Lionel Macomb is introduced to us via his expensive suits, his American flag lapel pin. . . . Let’s get another shot of the pin. And now, says director Frank Coraci, let’s do an extreme close-up of the pin, just to get the point home. This guy is some sort of patriot-freak! He spends his program railing against immigrants and mocking New York’s blond, elderly senior senator, Judith Montefiore-Salters (Judith Light), whom he calls “Judy the hyphen” for short. Unlike the actual Hillary Rodham Clinton, this one is eager to debate right-wingers about her plans, which include giving free college to illegal immigrants, opposition to which is portrayed as some sort of pathology. Lionel tends to speak in exclamations: “Bring me your overtaxed, your underlaid, your put-down, your fed-up; bring me your rage!”
Things do start with a groan, and they wind up with a different kind of groan, but in between, stretches of Will Reichel’s script aren’t bad. As written, Lionel is a charming rogue who revels in the caricature of heartlessness he gleefully creates. “I once had a guy deported for looking at that picture,” he says. “And he was from Maine.” Lionel’s purpose in being a blowhard, he says, is “Hyperarticulate divination of the noise inside their heads. . . . Nobody wears a T-shirt saying, ‘I want nuance.’” So the script is sometimes funny, but the movie never is, because Coogan detests his character so much he plays him with a kind of constipated fury that kills the wit of the writing. Either that or Coogan is concentrating so intensely on his mannered American accent that he loses track of where the laughs are.
Though the film starts out by taking lots of cheap shots at right-wing talkers, Lionel isn’t a complete jerk. He has hidden sorrows, was a victim of childhood abuse who worked his way up from the bottom, and he’s surprisingly thoughtful to those around him. His useless sister Laurie (Tina Benko) is an addict whose 16-year-old daughter, Tess, turns up on Lionel’s doorstep in need of some emergency parenting while her mom tries to sort herself out in rehab. The girl threatens to say mean things about Lionel on social media, so he opens his doors to her, and his girlfriend (Neve Campbell) becomes a sort of second mother to the needy girl.
The satirical and the saccharine make for a strange combination: It’s like Network meets an after-school special. Though Taylor Russell plays Tess sweetly, the character is barely fleshed-out and is thrown into the movie only to bring out hidden dimensions of Lionel. Yet the third act revolves around her troubles, at just the moment when Lionel does a shocking heel turn, which is an impressive feat when you’re already playing the heel in the first place. In his Howard Beale moment, this right-wing demagogue turns out to be . . . a left-wing demagogue. Maybe I should have said, “Aaron Sorkin moment,” because it comes across as a silly left-wing fantasy that even apparent right-wingers are secretly Bernie Bros. Lionel tells his audience:
We’re all playing you. We get rich and powerful by yanking your strings. . . . You’re angry. You should be. Our best days are behind us, and they’re not coming back. No promised land awaits you. . . . You live your days wallowing in a disposable selfie culture addicted to opioids and bad news. You elect a deranged con man just to see what happens. . . . You put all your faith in a nonexistent God and politicians and corporations who treat you like indentured servants. . . . You are complacent and corrupt. You lie, you cheat, and you steal. We’re just better at it than you are. . . . The American Dream is dead and buried, and you’re dancing on its grave.
There’s a lot more of this, capped by a phone call from “Claremont,” presumably the Claremont Institute, in which an unseen supremo is heard chortling, “You told Uncle Sam to go f**k himself!” As Claremont puts a great deal of effort into promoting constitutional principles and the Founding, this is a peculiarly off-base sally. You might as well imagine the head of the NRA saying he hates guns.
Moronic as much of this is, developing these ideas would have yielded a more compelling third act than what we’re actually given, which backs away from politics and turns into a warm goo of family drama, personal reflection, and sludgy banalities such as, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.” I suppose we could, but soupy thoughts like these don’t make for a thrilling denouement.