Sundance 2011 Review: HOT COFFEE

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
January 31st, 2011

Rating: 2.5/5

Director: Susan Saladoff

HOT COFFEE’s Sundance buzz benefited from the film being (ostensibly) about the famous case of Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who sued McDonald’s after a cup of their searing hot coffee injured her. The case was wildly maligned, and Liebeck and her case were frequently made fun of in pop culture, to the point that even Seinfeld did an episode about it. But Susan Saladoff’s debut film is much less about the hot coffee case than its slick title would suggest.

When HOT COFFEE opens, the Liebeck/McDonald’s ruse is in full effect – former lawyer Saladoff guides us through a number of aspects of the Liebeck case, mostly details that most people never even knew (such as the actual logistics of what led to the burn to the horrific injuries Liebeck endured) – until the film collapses into an overly segmented doc that seeks to explain way too many intricacies of the civil justice system, all presumably in service to Liebeck’s story.

Only about a quarter of the film deals with the Liebeck story, which is a shame, because there’s certainly enough material there for the case to have its own feature film. After introducing us to the players in and particulars of the Liebeck case, Saladoff sends HOT COFFEE on a messy mission to cover a vast number of subjects that are often just tangentially related to Liebeck and the issue of civil justice. HOT COFFEE’s segments and stories careen through Liebeck, straight into the dangers of a number of topics, such as tort reform, malpractice suits, caps on damages, binding arbitration, and judicial elections.

If that all sounds like a lot of information to swallow, it is. With each segment also including a personal and related story, it’s hard to believe that HOT COFFEE clocks in at just under ninety minutes. Saladoff has picked a staggering number of topics to cover in such a small amount of time, topics all deserving of longer looks and more comprehensive discussion, so it’s no surprise that just about every segment of the film feels short-shrifted. It’s a compliment to Saladoff that she is so obviously knowledgeable and passionate about these issues, but it’s a shame they don’t get the full attention they deserve.

When it comes up against opposition, HOT COFFEE rarely provides information from other sides, putting up title cards that let us know just who didn’t want to be interviewed for the project (McDonald’s, Dick Cheney, etc.). It’s unfortunate for both Saladoff and the project, and though allowance must be given, HOT COFFEE feels frequently one-sided – and I am someone that agrees with many of the film’s aims. It’s a clarion call for something, asking viewers to fight someone, with no one to really pin the blame on other than just the nebulous (and easy to hate) “big business.”

Technically, the film plays a bit like a lesser Morgan Spurlock project – spiced up with jazzy graphics and flashy animation to explain things that are, truthfully, a lot better explained without jazzy graphics and flashy animation. It’s a doc that seems much more readymade for the classroom (and shorter teenage attention spans), rather than for anyone serious about learning the ins and outs of some pretty complicated situations that Saladoff attempts to explain. Segments are introduced and augmented with all sorts of graphics that look good enough, but really just serve to oversimplify the information they are supposed to be servicing – unfortunately, so much like the film itself.

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