Movie Review: Hot Air (2018)

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As a self-described "deliverer of hard truths" who knows full well that it's not love but anger that keeps him on the air everyday, alt-right shock jock radio host Lionel Macomb (Steve Coogan) implores his listeners to bring him their "rage."

Ranting about personal responsibility while simultaneously blaming the other (liberals, immigrants, etc.), Lionel is challenged to practice what he preaches by his sixteen-year-old niece Tess (Taylor Russell) who tracks him down when her mother lands in rehab and she needs a place to stay. Calling him a hypocrite when his first instinct is to kick her out of his posh New York apartment because that would mean relying on a governmental program — child services — to pick up the slack, after the brainy Tess threatens to send out a tweet arguing that what her uncle says and does are two very different things, Lionel gives in.

Impressed by both the girl's moxie as well as her aptitude for mental chess as the two relatives test each other's boundaries, Lionel rebounds back from a predictably rocky beginning by bringing his newfound niece to work with him at the radio station. Hoping to use any issues that the liberal minded, open-hearted Tess cares about as fodder for his daily bile, after he ambushes her on the air for a soundbite, she calls him out on his unwillingness to engage in any real debate since he's armed with sound effects, a production team, and the mute button.

A welcome opportunity to satirize the role that rancorous shows like Lionel's play in further dividing the populace as the new breed of infotainment that — neither informative or entertaining — runs on anger, Hot Air might crib a scene straight out of Network, but Lionel's venom goes largely unchecked from start to finish. Rather than zero in on any one argument (maddeningly, even when it ties right into the overall plot), Hot Air leaves politics behind to concern itself with the architect behind the angry airwaves instead.

Unsure whether to focus on Lionel's personal or professional awakening, the script written by first time screenwriter Will Reichel unsuccessfully tries to combine the two arcs and becomes a big mute button in the process. Unwilling to fully explore just who the unlikable character really is in both spheres of his life, whenever Hot Air stars to veer over the line of acceptability to show us Lionel cheating on his lovely publicist girlfriend or bullying a caller who turns out to be a child or a veteran, the film overcorrects. Pulling us back from the edge, Air tries to paint our politically incorrect lead in a still politically correct light when it could've benefited from presenting him to the viewer, warts and all. And although it hints at more depth as the walls that Lionel hides behind start to crumble when Tess' arrival forces him to come face-to-face with his past, Reichel's script routinely comes up short.

By now a veritable pro at evoking empathy from viewers regardless of how unsavory his characters are — not to mention uniquely qualified to play a larger than life radio host, thanks to his turns in Alan Partridge and 24 Hour Party People — Coogan takes to this role like a flag pin to Lionel's suit jacket. In fact he's so good here that he nearly fools you into thinking the film is more cohesive than it is from start to finish. Yet, featuring fine support from Neve Campbell and Skylar Astin, Hot Air is less a one man show for the always compelling Coogan than a capable two-hander between himself and talented up and comer Russell, who manages to not only hold her own with her costars but also pull focus as the one character we remain wholeheartedly invested in throughout.

Though augmented by its performances, the otherwise ambitious Air is in desperate need of a rewrite, which could've netted a slightly bigger budget for a film where far too many scenes feel like they're missing, rushed, or unfinished. And while The Wedding Singer director Frank Coraci — reteaming here with his Around the World in 80 Days star Coogan — knows how to make an affable movie and Russell and Coogan share some charming scenes, Air's lightness never feels earned. Pushing us in a few different directions, while the last thing we want is to bring Lionel our rage, Hot Air would've worked so much better if it had followed Lionel's lead and delivered to audiences some hard truths about American politics as well as the man behind the microphone who spends his days stoking the fires of hate.

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