Before I say anything else, let me first say that I think the world of you: You’re the greatest actor I’ve had the pleasure of growing up with. You first caught my teenage eye in Dead Poets Society (1989), when you brought a bracing, contemporary yearning to a hokey story of fifties preppies who must learn to seize the day. And a few years later, in movies like Reality Bites (1994) and Before Sunrise (1995), you came to define a certain type of disaffected American male: those rudderless, overeducated dreamers who have no idea how to put any of their big plans into action. The men you played in these movies were smug, whiny, entitled; more than a few critics found them (and you) unbearable. But you also revealed the honesty and sweetness inside these characters; you made us feel the insecurity beneath their hipster exteriors. Those of us who were suffering through our twenties identified deeply and even came to regard you as something of a voice for our generation.
But this directing thing, Ethan? This foolhardy insistence that you’re some kind of auteur? It needs to stop immediately. I’m referring, of course, to your latest effort, The Hottest State, based on your autobiographical 1996 novel and opening in limited release this month. Admittedly, it’s an improvement over your feature directorial debut, Chelsea Walls (2001), that impenetrable ode to the boho struggles of some drug-addled artists living in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel; this time around you’ve at least figured out how to point the camera in the proper direction and tell a semi-coherent story. But, ugh, did it have to be this story? You follow an actor named William, who, much like yourself, was born in Texas and then moved as a kid with his mother to New York. (It’s an especially narcissistic flourish to have cast Mark Webber in the lead, an actor who—in Ethan Hawke—like fashion—skirts that fine line between adorably unkempt and just plain skanky.) After William’s girlfriend, Sara, breaks his heart, he travels back to Texas on one of those cringe-inducing “journeys of self-discovery,” where he must reckon with the father he never really knew.
There are, I should acknowledge, a couple of nicely observed moments here, primarily during those early scenes where William and Sara fall breathlessly in love. (Good call, too, on choosing your Fast Food Nation co-star Catalina Sandino Moreno to play Sara.) Mostly, though, your movie meanders from one precious scene to the next, relying on more groaningly introspective dialogue than the first three seasons of The O.C. combined. (William to Sara: “It’s a little disappointing when your best quality is pretending to be someone else.”) You do yourself no favors either by casting yourself as William’s dad—a stunt that ends up making the movie seem even more mawkishly personal. The thing is, Ethan, The Hottest State finally feels less like a coming-of-age drama than a descent into the most angsty regions of the Hawke navel. All the searching earnestness you’ve showed us over the years—all those hopeful boys you’ve played who aren’t sure that they have what it takes to become a man—here tips over into touchy-feely self-parody.
You didn’t ask, but I need to offer some advice. I simply can’t bear to stand by quietly as one of my heroes sabotages his career. First off, forget about directing, particularly when you still have so much extraordinary potential as an actor. And don’t bother with glossy studio productions like 2004’s Taking Lives or 1999’s Snow Falling on Cedars (you don’t just look bored in those movies; you seem downright expressionless). Instead, embrace your unique place in Hollywood, as a kind of one-off leading man, the major actor who works in a minor key. In this regard, Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001), which got you that Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, was perfect for you. As a rookie cop squaring off against Denzel Washington’s sociopathic mentor, you displayed a newfound intensity and determination. I suspect that you cottoned to the sly conceit of David Ayer’s script, which allowed you to play the moral bellwether without having to carry the movie on your shoulders. The lo-fi Gen Xer in you, the guy who wants to save the world but who doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss about it, had finally found a way to fit inside the framework of a mainstream genre picture.
My other piece of advice: Stick with those who know you best and who know how to keep your worst impulses in check. I’m thinking particularly of fellow Texan Richard Linklater, who directed you to your two greatest performances, in Before Sunrise and its exquisite sequel, Before Sunset (2004). The latter film, especially, finds you all grown up and a little bit worse for the wear. Your character, Jesse—who had a fleeting, unforgettable encounter with Julie Delpy’s Celine in the original film—is now a published novelist whose marriage is on the skids. The parallels to your own life are unavoidable (watching the film, we couldn’t help but think about your then-recent divorce from Uma Thurman), but Linklater never underlines those parallels. Instead, Before Sunset quietly rushes forward in a series of long, poignant exchanges between Jesse and Celine, who talk about parenthood, failed romances, and the disappointments of adulthood. The cumulative effect is haunting, a bold synthesis of actor and role. You show us what happened when all those self-absorbed and directionless boys finally entered their thirties: They’re still self-absorbed and still directionless—and, above all, still yearning and hoping and dreaming. It turns out, Ethan, that you still have the power to speak for an entire generation. Please, use that power wisely.
Your biggest fan,
P.S.: Some other pointers.
A few last bits of advice for you, Ethan, inspired by two of your most underrated movies. First, don’t be afraid to tap into your inner movie star, the way you did in Andrew Niccol’s sci-fi thriller Gattaca (1997). Playing a janitor living in a future world who brokers a deal to “borrow” the DNA of another man, you got to wear fancy suits and slick back your hair—and it turns out that, behind your slacker facade, there is an old-school Hollywood matinee idol yearning to burst free. You might also consider reteaming with Gattaca co-star Jude Law, who—much like Denzel Washington in Training Day—is the sort of hammy performer who knows how to draw you out of your mellow shell. Finally, how about making another film with director Alfonso Cuarón, who showed us your wistful side in his offbeat adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1998)? He’s a filmmaker who appreciates your charm but, much like Richard Linklater, never lets you oversell it.