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Friday, May 23, 2008

'The Hottest State'

When a girl just refuses to commit

Let me tell you what's wrong with most chick flicks: They're hard on real chicks.

The Hottest State Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star

Director: Ethan Hawke
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: English
Now playing (May 23, 2008)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Here we are, overworked and stressed, between relationships or roughing one out, jilted and depressed or stable and bored. What we want is a little excitement, some peace and maybe a tiny bit of vindication. And granted, the chick flick typically gives us all that — but usually all that does is make things worse. What with all those thin, gorgeous characters and their spacious apartments, idealized (if eventually unfaithful) boyfriends and clever sidekick girlfriends, not to mention the kind of wardrobe (size XS of course) that Lindsay Lohan would steal in a flash, you wind up feeling more damaged than healed.

But "The Hottest State" is that rare find: a chick flick that puts chicks first. It's not empowering or ennobling, it never gets preachy or tells us to shape up and move on or some such dire pep aesthetic. It's just a simple, shallow love story where two ordinary people meet, have a brief relationship and break up — without much depth, sense or reason. And this time it's the guy who bears the brunt of the pain and humiliation, who commits himself hard, only to get burned down to ashes. Who would have thought that an ex-chick predator like Hawke would be batting for the other team.

Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, who also penned the original novel, "The Hottest State" highlights Hawke's sharp ear for dialogue of love relationships, honed no doubt from the twin works that define his acting career: "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset." In these he does little else but talk/yak at costar Julie Delpy, but in terms of loquacity they're a perfect match; in this, his second feature, the baton of verbosity is passed on to Mark Webber, who plays a 21-year-old New Yorker named William. Hawke himself plays William's estranged slacker dad living in Texas, a state of affairs that somewhat mirrors Hawke's own upbringing. In the film, William's personality profile (gaping insecurity, irritating arrogance and nonstop complaining) is blamed on his dad; Hawke writes William as a guy who — consciously or not — is always shrugging off his own flaws, then pointing a thumb back at his old man.

Interestingly, William's girlfriend Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) could care less about his Oedipus complex, nor does William ever try to explain it to her. His father appears periodically in flashbacks (the last time they saw each other was when William was 8), fueling his private internal monologues about life and rejection. William babbles all the time but he steers clear of burdening Sara with his emotional baggage.

They meet in a bar and for him, it's love at first sight. Sara tells him she's an aspiring singer, William tells her he chose acting because he's good at "pretending to be other people." Sara explains later that she was in the mood for a one-night stand, but now she no longer feels like it, sorry.

But William isn't a guy who gives up; he campaigns for a long-term commitment and showers her with attention — Not that this works. Sara has no qualms about sleeping naked in his bed and refusing to let him touch her. William begs, he whines, he becomes the kind of buffoonish slave Roman kings used to keep around to amuse themselves.

Then he gets an acting job in Mexico and asks Sara to come along. She agrees, on condition that she stays for six days before William starts to work, then goes back to New York; he can come back to her when the gig is done. But the trip finally melts Sara's glacial resolve, and the pair spend an idyllic, deliriously happy six days practically welded to the bed sheets in their motel.

After Sara leaves, he blows his entire salary on phone calls to her and an early flight back. But Sara, spooning cereal, flatly tells him it's over: "I don't need a boyfriend right now."

In the book, Sara is "overweight and funny-looking." Hawke has tried to stay close to that approximation — Catalina Sandino Moreno is a dark-eyed beauty, but in "The Hottest State," she's plump, unglamorous and not very interesting. Her one outstanding trait seems to be this unwavering will to keep saying no and go AWOL for days. William can only rant, plead and clutch the phone like an oxygen tank in a sinking submarine. Never in the history of chick flicks has a straight, cute guy made so many unreturned calls to a girl or left so many messages, never has any male tried this hard to get through.

"The Hottest State" may not be a brilliant film, but it sure gives women what they occasionally want to see: a man who's not afraid to behave like a total, unmitigated idiot in the name of love.

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