Documentary Week: Hot Coffee (2011) Review

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Hot Coffee will surprise you. The film is marketed as the real story behind the now infamous lawsuit between a lady and the fast-food giant McDonald’s after she burnt herself with hot coffee. The surprise is that by the end of the first twenty minutes, which explains the story, gives you testimony and behind the scenes access to the case, your perception will have changed.

What has now become an urban legend and the benchmark for compensation culture gone wrong is actually a case which was worth fighting and had a positive outcome with the changes McDonald’s made to their coffee. With that story told, the door is opened for the documentary to begin it’s real purpose; highlighting the injustice against average citizens when they take big companies to court. Unfortunately this is also where the movie loses it’s edge.

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The story of the McDonald’s Coffee case is an interesting one

The McDonald’s story is a great hook and the best part of the movie. This is because it has entered popular culture, it is a talking-point of interest and best of all, the case is simple. What follows is much less simple, with each case becoming more complex and moving away from the “X vs The Man” that the simpler cases are and getting into legalese and law degree territory.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the movie kept it simple but it struggles to keep the audience on-side. Some attempts are made but so many legal terms are used, explained quickly and then used with implied understanding that you will be forgiven for letting your focus drift.

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The other cases are interesting but tied up in legal terms

There is some saving grace as each new piece of legal-terminology is accompanied by a story which explains the issue. The stories are interesting and due to the nature of the documentary and what it is hoping to achieve, they all highlight injustice which you will struggle to argue against. The problem soon arises again when the legal-terms are introduced and the reasons the cases were not successful are explained, with jargon placing a barrier to understanding.

It is also an example of a documentary without resolution. Highlighting these issues is one thing but when the end of the documentary arrives it doesn’t feel like anything has been achieved. If a documentary is designed to inspire change, the best make their evidence too damning to overlook. Here it is too confusing to understand.

Overall, Hot Coffee is a noble attempt to highlight injustice within the legal system in America. The use of the famous McDonald’s coffee case is interesting and a great hook but this promising start is wasted as the movie gets bogged down in legal terms, law terminology and stories which become too confusing to care about.

Rating – 2.5

(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)

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An interesting idea but a flawed approach


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