Movies

Review: Hot Air

Steve Coogan takes on talk radio.

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As an attack on right-wing radio, Hot Air is surprisingly inept. Steve Coogan, the movie's star (and an executive producer) is a smart, funny actor; but he's also a standard-issue English lefty (votes Labour, supports Jeremy Corbyn, detests Brexit), and it's easy to imagine that he never had any intention of giving a nuanced account of his character here, a slick New York talk-radio firebrand named Lionel Macomb. On the air, Macomb leads his callers in reviling illegal immigration (Lionel wants to build not just a wall, but a moat, too) and mocking official alarms about global warming. ("That's why I live in a penthouse," Lionel says. "Higher ground.") You get the idea.

You'd think Coogan—who demonstrated a mastery of smug cluelessness playing TV host Alan Partridge on the BBC, and who has had fun with sour disgruntlement in the three road-trip series he's made with Rob Brydon—would be just the man to do a witty takedown of this ugly American. But no—Coogan's performance is an exercise in simpleminded political gesturing: he hates this guy and what else is there to say? Unfortunately, that leaves the reins of the picture in the hands of director Frank Coraci, whose résumé is heavy with Adam Sandler and Kevin James movies (and who previously directed Coogan in a wildly unsuccessful 2004 remake of Around the World in 80 Days). And Coraci is himself chained to a strikingly mindless script by first-time screenwriter Will Reichel.

The story is a bagful of clanking plot stratagems. We meet Lionel in the studio, bonding as usual with his angry listeners. ("Bring me your rage.") Then we see a teenage girl named Tess (Taylor Russell) turning up at Lionel's door. She's the daughter of Lionel's good-for-nothing sister Laurie (Tina Benko), who's currently in rehab again. Lionel is supposed to be a heartless dick, and at first he does make huffy noises about turning Tess away—but he thinks better of them after she threatens reputational repercussions on Twitter. Okay, that's blackmail. But then, voluntarily, Lionel starts providing Tess with expensive clothing from Barney's and engineering her acceptance to a posh boarding school. Go figure.

Lionel's publicist and longtime girlfriend Valerie (Neve Campbell) is quickly stirred into the mix. Val knows that Lionel is a bit of an idiot (he only likes foie gras because it's illegal in California, she tells Tess), but hey, there's something about the guy. (Lionel is also cheating on Val with his hot housekeeper—a distasteful fact that the movie never deals with.)

When more plot conflict is called for, we learn that Lionel's ratings are beginning to slide. The immediate cause of this is a kinder, smilier young rival named Gareth Whitley (Skylar Astin), who was once Lionel's heir apparent. But there's also the possibility that the public has simply grown tired of Lionel's snotty schtick. On the street one day, we see him mobbed by protesters waving signs that say, "Talk's not cheap, it's toxic." This would seem to be a flat-out declaration by the filmmakers of an increasingly commonplace leftwing attitude toward the First Amendment (it's echoed on the movie's poster: "We all have a voice. Just be careful how you use it"). But then later, when one of the sign-wavers gets to express his views more fully on Lionel's show, he proves himself to be an empty-headed fool. Could this be an attempt to offer us another point of view? It feels more like clumsy plot construction.

Even viewers who might find the movie's message agreeable are likely to reject the puddle of shameless narrative goo into which it begins to sink toward the end. This is a redemption story that owes a lot to the 1976 Network—just not enough. In an on-air showdown with Whitley and a liberal senator (Judith Light), Lionel rounds on the live audience and blames them, not himself, for talk-media's affronts to common decency. "We just get rich and powerful by yanking your strings," he says. "Our best days are behind us…The American Dream is dead and buried and you're dancing on its grave."

Has Lionel seen the light? Did he actually just say, "Who cares about real feelings when you have emojis?" Can this movie get any dumber? Yes, I'm afraid. And yes, yes.

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  1. Just in time for Election 2020!

    If only the Russians had made movies around Election 2016, the Lefties would have been on board with their attempts to fiddle with US elections. Instead Hillary used a British spy to influence Election 2016.

    Movies are NOT propaganda, don’t cha know.

    1. Movies are incredibly expensive to make and distribute. The Russian Facebook effort was done on a shoe string, helped along by 1000s of unpaid stooges.

      1. Mad Max was made for $200,000 and made $99,750,000

        Blair Witch project was made for $60,000 and made $248,639,099

        Paranormal Activity was made for $15,000 and made $193,355,800

        1. Those are independent productions by dedicated and visionary artists. An FSB propaganda effort isn’t likely to remotely comparable You really don’t need me to tell you this, do you?

          1. Hahaha. Because Russia has no filmmakers or “visionary artists”….

            You’re extra ridiculous today.

            1. “Because Russia has no filmmakers or “visionary artists”….”

              Russia has plenty of fine visionary artists. Some excellent recent Russian films you might like are It’s Hard to be a God, based on the SF story by the Strugatsky brothers is one. Durak, (Fool) about an aspiring architect turned whistle blower is another. Both are expensive productions and neither were made with an eye to promoting Trump or any other politician.

              Russian propaganda hasn’t relied on lavish film production since the 1920s when Eisenstein was making Battleship Potemkin, made for domestic consumption. Targeting the west, they have always relied on western stooges to spread propaganda at little or no cost.

  2. As an attack on right-wing radio, Hot Air is surprisingly inept.

    lmao. It really isn’t, the writers and actors probably have never listened to right wing radio.

    1. I’m sure their woke, leftist friends (who also haven’t listened to right wing radio) have told them all about it.

    2. “It really isn’t, the writers and actors probably have never listened to right wing radio.”

      I’m sure they have. Coogan would have to get the vocal stylings of the genre, not to mention the accent, and the writer would strive for some semblance of authenticity.

  3. “This is a redemption story that owes a lot to the 1976 Network—just not enough. In an on-air showdown with Whitley and a liberal senator (Judith Light), Lionel rounds on the live audience and blames them, not himself, for talk-media’s affronts to common decency.”

    That’s ancient wisdom for a media phenomenon that doesn’t really matter anymore. If talk radio is in worse trouble than broadcast news, it’s only because talk radio has already hit rock bottom and broadcast news is still falling–with increasing velocity. Even cable news is getting run over by social media and streaming. One of the reasons I like Sling is because I can get all the entertainment cable channels (AMC, Discovery, HGTV) for $25 a month–and not pay for the cable news channels like MSNBC or Fox News at all if I want (and I do not want).

    If there were an interesting take on the relationship between the American people and the news media a la Network today, it would be a movie with a plot that started out with a Wag the Dog kind of scenario. As the plot progressed, the news media would increasingly “devolve” from pushing the higher ground of progressive and conservative principles into hackery and sensationalism, and we’d slowly become aware of a supposedly dark and sinister force undermining the best efforts of the news media to inform our views. In the final reveal, that supposedly dark and sinister force would turn out to be consumer choice. Consumer choice seems to permeate and dominate everything–and it doesn’t seem to by under anyone’s control!

    What if the reason less than 10% of 18-29 years olds get their news from cable news channels is because their programming sucks?

    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/05/fewer-americans-rely-on-tv-news-what-type-they-watch-varies-by-who-they-are/

    1. “What if the reason less than 10% of 18-29 years olds get their news from cable news channels is because their programming sucks?”

      Maybe it’s just not funny enough. I’ve heard that young people rely on comedians like Maher and Colbert etc for their news fix. I’ve even met people who admit as much. News at one time strove for objectivity. I’m not sure objectivity is even possible in this ‘news with jokes.’

      1. They have more options than people did 18 to 29 years ago, and it’s easier to leave cable news behind when you have more options.

        Older people stick around because they’ve had more time to establish their habits. It’s the same reason why razor and beer commercials target younger men. Older people already have favorites, and they’re less likely to change. If younger people have favorites and habits already, they aren’t yet as entrenched.

        1. “They have more options than people did 18 to 29 years ago”

          You mean like they can watch Youtube on their smartphones? I don’t see that makes much difference. You say that you are willing to shell out for entertainment channels but not news. People like Maher and Colbert are playing today on entertainment venues, broadcast or cable TV, that were available 30 years ago.

          1. They get their news from all sorts of sources that didn’t exit 18 to 29 years ago, and they’re presumably choosing those sources rather than cable news because they like them better than cable news for various reasons.

            That isn’t hard to follow.

            1. “They get their news from all sorts of sources that didn’t exit 18 to 29 years ago”

              The article you link to says nothing about this. It only shows the decline in viewership of local, network and cable TV news. I doubt this takes into account the point I raised that at least some younger people are known to get their news from entertainers and comedians on TV rather than the more traditional Cronkite or CNN stylings.

              I’m not sure what these all sorts of sources that didn’t exist 30 years ago. You mean like the propaganda channels in English like RT, al Jazeera, and the Iranian one? It’s true that they haven’t been around all that long, but I think their influence is pretty marginal.

              “That isn’t hard to follow.”

              It’s harder than you think. It seems to me you are confusing the idea of a ‘news source,’ like the NYT or something from a journalist, with ‘news media or venue,’ like a newspaper, TV, Facebook or Youtube posting etc. I will go out on a limb and claim that the newer news media like Facebook largely rely on traditional news sources, like journalists. This is certainly true here at Reason.

              There are definitely new sources as well, publishing on new media. Twitter is quite good for information on topics Reason and other media take no interest in, the demonstrations and turmoil in Honduras, for example, letting non-paid non-professionals publish their contributions. But I’m not sure this is what you had in mind. I doubt that Americans are tuning out from broadcast and cable TV because they’ve turned on to various Honduran twitter feeds instead.

              1. It’s a very simple concept.

                You often find simple concepts confusing for no good reason.

                Three times is a trend. Being confused by simple concepts is more than a trend for you.

                1. “You often find simple concepts confusing for no good reason.”

                  Maybe I’m just not as smart as you think I am. Still I think it’s you who are confused here, as I pointed out earlier. A ‘news source’ refers to where the information came from, a whistleblower for example. A ‘news media’ is how we got the information, like a newspaper or radio. So when you write “They get their news from all sorts of sources that didn’t exit 18 to 29 years ago,” I’m pretty sure you mean all sorts of news media that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Bradley manning is a whistleblower and news source, leaking documents to the internet, and the fact that he wasn’t born 30 years ago is not relevant.

                  I’m only trying to get to the bottom of what you are trying to say, I would have thought you would appreciate my effort instead of trying to insult me.

                  1. Can he help it that you’re so dumb you take an easy-to-understand concept (such as, “Bradley Manning, as a news source, is not the same as Alex Jones, who himself is not the same as NBC and arguably caters to a different audience”) and willfully refuse to read the clear meaning in order to put your own moronic interpretation on it?

                    1. No, But he should strive for clarity nevertheless. I think most people get their news mostly from traditional sources though the news media may be recently developed. If he or anyone disagrees with this, he’s free to explain himself with greater clarity.

        2. +100 Ken

          Very astute observations.

        3. Actually, I think older men like me don’t shave that often rather than have established preferences unless not shaving is a habit. When you are retired you don’t need to shave every, especially you have a small farm. The livestock certainly don’t care. So, a blade lasts us a month or longer.

      2. WGN Morning News in Chicago makes a pretty good go at it. They start with the fact that they admit they are idiots and go from there.

  4. “We just get rich and powerful by yanking your strings,” he says. “Our best days are behind us…The American Dream is dead and buried and you’re dancing on its grave.”

    The American Dream is prosperity and homeownership through education and hard work.

    Large media properties aren’t bought and operated because they make people rich. They’re mostly being bought up by billionaires with too much bad publicity, mostly as a backhanded attempt to deflect criticism against them. See Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Sam Zell for examples.

    The “profits” from owning these companies should be measured in the chilling effect their ownership has on the public criticism of their owners. If you ever want to work for a media property owned by Disney, someday, you better shut the fuck up about Warren Buffet. None of those owners got rich on their media properties.

    Owning those media properties may be more about profits than the charitable foundations these billionaires set up to help protect their reputations from the angry mobs, but if they can break even for the bean counters, that’s just icing on the cake–from a billionaire’s perspective.

    Bezos didn’t come down from Mt. Olympus for the Washington Post because he wants to squeeze a few bucks out of the operation. Bill Gates saw what happens when you’re the richest man in the world and you don’t have a media property to protect yourself from criticism–in the form of an antitrust case. That’s why we have MSNBC. Sam Zell made his money in real estate.

    1. The American dream has always been social mobility; none of that European social class claptrap. Work hard and you can raise your status. Piffle away your inheritance and sink to the gutter. American aristocracy is fleeting.

      Home ownership is just a side effect.

      1. “The American dream has always been social mobility”

        The American Dream is a work of literary fiction written by Norman Mailer in the mid 60s. The hyoid bone plays a large role in the story and this book is the first place I learned of it and its importance in police investigations.

        I don’t recommend the book. The Executioner’s Song is the Mailer book to read. It’s a really top notch piece of reportage.

    2. They’re mostly being bought up by billionaires with too much bad publicity, mostly as a backhanded attempt to deflect criticism against them. See Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Sam Zell for examples.

      Vanity editors.

  5. Talk radio may actually be declining but not because they are irrelevant but because we have more choices now that we can access when we want to through the internet. Five minutes of looking over drudge and I know what Rush will be talking about.

    there is one other issue to their decline which I’m not sure is real is the left has made it violently uncomfortable for companies to sponsor them or for people to even listen to. When Rush first came on the air our local community tried to force the radio station to get rid of him, luckily there were still enough people in this town that believe in the 1A to convince the station to keep him

    1. “When Rush first came on the air our local community tried to force the radio station to get rid of him,”

      He’s an amusing entertainer. Does US Armed Forces network still carry him? I suppose he’s the most leftist of all the right wing radio hosts.

  6. As an attack on right-wing radio, Hot Air is surprisingly inept. Steve Coogan, the movie’s star (and an executive producer) is a smart, funny actor; but he’s also a standard-issue English lefty (votes Labour, supports Jeremy Corbyn, detests Brexit), and it’s easy to imagine that he never had any intention of giving a nuanced account of his character here, a slick New York talk-radio firebrand named Lionel Macomb.

    I usually really like Steve Coogan, but this is an odd subject choice and it seems extremely irrelevant. This would have been more topical in 1999.

    1. “I usually really like Steve Coogan, but this is an odd subject choice and it seems extremely irrelevant. ”

      Our favorite performers often choose really bad vehicles. Even the most talented. Michael Cane, star of the superb Ipcress File, and many others, has appeared in at least as many stinkers. Ricky Gervaise, the creator, writer and star of The Office, has appeared in nothing but stinkers since.

      1. I’m not suggesting this is a stinker. It might actually be very funny, it’s just an odd subject to choose. It would be like making a comedy about how the rise of the answering machine has changed our lives.

        1. Maybe there’s just something about the dynamics of a radio dj and the audience that doesn’t exist over some sort of analogous web based ranter. I get your point about the anachronism of radio, but I can’t for the life of me imagine a web host with the same dramatic tension and ability to hold our attention, This might be because of McLuhan’s hot (radio) and cool (internet) medium, or maybe not.

  7. Talk radio may actually be declining but not because they are irrelevant but because we have more choices now that we can access when we want to through the internet. Five minutes of looking over drudge and I know what Rush will be talking about.
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