Steve Coogan plays a right-wing radio host in Frank Coraci’s find-your-roots parable.
A politics-themed redemption story about as deep as you’d expect from the go-to director for Adam Sandler and Kevin James comedies, Frank Coraci’s Hot Air finds Steve Coogan playing a right-wing talk-radio blowhard on a collision course with his past. Though Coogan sells the role as well as Will Reichel’s underwritten script allows, a story built around the arrival of the spunky niece he never knew he had (Taylor Russell) plays like a better-budgeted Lifetime movie that was cancelled for threatening to upset any Trump-lovers in the network’s audience. Neither funny, insightful nor moving, it’s mostly objectionable for its failure to exploit the facets of Coogan’s screen persona that line up so neatly with the smug blatherers who dominate the AM dial.
Coogan is Lionel Macomb, who’s probably the man Rush Limbaugh sees when he dreams of himself at night: impeccably groomed and tailored, self-possessed behind the mic as he doles out petty insults and self-righteous pronouncements for millions of daytime listeners. Reichel surely had Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in mind when he invented Macomb’s nemesis in Congress: Complaining about the surfeit of syllables in the name of Judith Light’s Judith Montefiore-Salters, he refers to her simply as “The Hyphen” whenever insulting her legislation to help the children of undocumented immigrants pay for college.
Little does Lionel know that he’s related to someone with her own unlikely college dream. Russell’s Tess, the 16-year-old daughter of Lionel’s long-estranged sister Laurie (Tina Belko), is fending for herself while Mom’s in rehab and has decided her uncle should give her a helping hand. She shows up with nothing in Manhattan, barges in the least likely way into Lionel’s home, tells him who she is and then threatens to tweet about his heartlessness when he tries to throw her out. Heartlessness is, as they say, on brand for Lionel, but for some reason he succumbs to this threat and gives her the spare bedroom. The bachelor pad’s coldness is warmed a bit by Lionel’s publicist/girlfriend Val (Neve Campbell). What this smiling, generous soul sees in him is anyone’s guess; her job here is mostly to make it seem that Lionel is not as bad as he definitely is.
Along with the free lodging, Tess quickly gets a job at Lionel’s office and makes herself comfortable in all sorts of places you wouldn’t expect him to allow her to be: behind his desk, in the studio’s control booth, logging onto his email. The script wants to make her a liberal-thinking foil for Lionel’s pronouncements about personal responsibility and the welfare state, but can’t muster much of a debate between the two before getting sidetracked: Lionel’s ratings are sinking as a new talk-radio star rises, and the film needs to maneuver the two into a televised standoff so Lionel can really lose his cool.
Bow-tied Gareth Whitley preaches conservative values like a Baptist pastor, and Skylar Astin slathers on insincere benevolence in the role. Their televised showdown seems meant to decide whether meanness or compassion will be the face of American conservatism (ummmm…), but some underhandedness on Whitley’s part sends Lionel into a Network-lite “mad as hell” rant that just might kill his career. Or, you know, provoke some half-baked soul-searching.
Much less political at its core than it seems, Hot Air has a bit of mild fun watching Lionel’s self-satisfied radio routine before arriving at the kind of mean-dude redemption we expect to see at the holidays. Lionel’s last name might as well be Scrooge, with only the Ghost of Christmas (or family road trip) Past needed to make him remember the vulnerable human boy he once was. Throw in a bunch of sentimentality about Polaroid cameras, and you have a morality tale that teaches nobody anything they didn’t already know.
Production companies: Spanknyce Film, Juror Number 7 Films
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
Cast: Steve Coogan, Taylor Russell, Neve Campbell, Griffin Newman, Skylar Astin, Pico Alexander, Judith Light, Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., Tina Benko
Director: Frank Coraci
Screenwriter: Will Reichel
Producers: Frank Coraci, Aimee Keen, Susan Leber
Executive producers: Steve Coogan, Robert A. Halmi, Jim Reeve, Will Reichel
Director of photography: Frank Prinzi
Production designer: Liz Toonkel
Costume designer: Rebecca Luke
Editor: Tom Lewis
Composer: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Casting directors: Justine Arteta, Kathleen Chopin, Kim Davis-Wagner
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