Hottest State, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Like Woody Allen's Annie Hall but without the humor, The Hottest State tells the full story of a relationship: the first meeting, the Honeymoon phase, then the bitter deterioration of love into anger and recrimination. Ethan Hawke has taken his 190-page 1996 novel and provided a faithful film version that makes only two key changes. The mood of the book is retained and there's something of the flavor of a Richard Linklater production in the finished effort. (Linklater is given an acknowledgement in the novel.) As romantic dramas go, this one is heartfelt and genuine; audiences will soar with the protagonist early before crashing and burning with him later.

William (Mark Webber) is unlucky in love. By his own admission, he doesn't know how to act around women. So when he meets Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno) in a New York City bar, he's nervous. Fortunately, she is too. He's an actor; she's a musician - and neither of them has much money. They live together for a while but, although she sleeps naked in his bed, they don't have sex. Finally, on a vacation in Mexico, they consummate the relationship and almost get married. William is certain he has found the love of his life but, as we know from the voiceover, he is headed for a hard fall. Sarah leaves Mexico ahead of him to return to New York, where work awaits. When he later arrives, he finds her changed toward their relationship. After giving him the cold shoulder for several days, she finally confesses that she doesn't want a boyfriend. Meanwhile, as the story progresses, we learn a little about William's past. He has a controlling mother (Laura Linney) and a slacker father (Ethan Hawke) who hasn't contacted him in years.

For roughly an hour, The Hottest State is wonderfully, deliriously romantic. We know that bad things are coming, but the storm clouds remain at bay. The chemistry between Mark Webber and Catalina Sandino Moreno is electric. We accept that these two are in love but that they're confused and uncertain about everything from living together to having sex for the first time to marrying. Moments ring true: William's "good morning" notes to Sarah after he learns that she's staying in a building across from his; his inability to perform when "the moment" arrives; and their sex-charged days of bliss after the relationship is consummated.

Of necessity, the film's second half isn't nearly as fun. It's miserable watching William in his downward spiral. The romance evaporates and the movie becomes a less interesting study in a young man's attempt to stabilize himself after the failure of his first great romance. The supporting characters are interesting but the movie can't quite fill the void left by the virtual disappearance of Moreno during the second half. Mark Webber is very good as William, but he plays him as Hawke might and he's a little to low key to carry the movie on his own. Moreno is the catalyst.

The Hottest State makes two interesting changes from the book. The first is to move the vacation location from Paris to Mexico. The reason for this is likely due to economic and/or logistical factors, but it's seamless. For the purposes of the story, one location does as well as the other. The second change is to replace the book's overweight, "funny looking" Sarah with the gorgeous Moreno. This subtly alters the dynamic between William and Sarah, although the movie pretends that Sarah isn't as attractive as she is.

The Hottest State is a little talky but the conversations are generally true-to-life and interesting. The book is perceptive and the movie, which directly excerpts whole conversations from it, is no less so. This kind of thing that can happen when the writer of the source material has complete creative control over the movie adaptation. One thing that's unique to the film version is the rich and varied soundtrack, which will generate more interest in some circles than the actual picture. Hawke has made this movie his way and the result is a story that is by turns romantic and disquieting. It's well worth the price of admission.

Hottest State, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1