[26 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sure - growing up sucks. It’s just about the worst thing that can happen to the fledgling free spirit in a young person. As kids, we all dream of a better life, of wealth and wisdom beyond our fragile years (and our doddering parents) and we pray that the good times - usually revolving around sex, drugs, alcohol, hijinx, and lots and lots of rock and roll - will never end. So when they do, it’s devastating, like a slam of a jail cell door, or the discovery of a mysterious lump on your neck.
It’s closure of the cruelest kind, a shock that causes us to obsess about what could have been, the nostalgic acknowledgement of what we had then vs. what we’re stuck with now. Into this angst-driven anecdotal abyss waltzes the wacky gross-out comedy Hot Tub Time Machine, a crudity calculated to make one delirious as well as misty for those bygone days. Yet there is more to this movie than scatology and Spandau Ballet. In fact, this is one of the most insightful sophomoric satires in a long time.
When their directionless buddy Lou (Rob Corddry) feigns a suicide attempt, aged high school pals Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson) decide to take him back to their favorite mountain ski lodge, a place seminal to their lives 20-plus years before. While none of the men are completely down and out, they all live lives that are horribly unfulfilling and rife with personal issues. Tagging along for the trip is video game geek Jacob (Clark Duke). He’s been living with his Uncle Adam ever since his whore mother (Collette Wolfe) ran off to live with her latest boyfriend.
When they arrive at the former hot spot, our quartet of potential party animals learns an awful truth. Just like their own situation, the accommodations they cherish have seen much better days. The only good thing about their run-down room is a hot tub…a hot tub which somehow manages to transport them back in time to relive one of the most important weekends of Lou, Adam, and Nick’s formative years.
Nonsensical, tacky, and more than a little over the top, Hot Tub Time Machine stands as one of the highest “high concept” comedies ever. It’s weird, frequently gut-busting, and offers enough emotional balance and character insight to keep heart and your gag reflex in check. Sure, you could fuss all day long about the logic in what is happening, arguing facts and physics until the ghosts of Carl Sagan and Nikola Tesla materialize in front of you and slap you in the pocket protector, but that’s beside the point.
You could also kvetch about the piecemeal period particulars, songs and significant moments crashing together like an inebriated calendar from got into a fight with a Billboard Hot 100 mixtape. But the fact remains that, in a mischievous, cheeky manner, this is one boisterous, belly laugh of a film, a goof with as much tenacity as warmth for the way things used to be.
Let’s face it - any storyline that can serve up Crispin Glover as a hilarious running gag has got to be doing something right. Screenwriter turned director Steve Pink takes a script from Sex Drive/She’s Out of My League duo Sean Anders and John Morris (with some help from Josh Heald) and morphs it into a raging love letter to the Reagan Era, a crib sheet of every major cultural and commercial excitement/embarrassment to put on a torn pastel sweatshirt, leg warmers, and Loverboy headband. We get the mandatory Michael Jackson joke, the various references to bad alcoholic ideas (the fruity wine coolers just flow and flow) - even the presence of some incredible clever cameos helps put things in massive meta-perspective. In some ways, it’s just like the ‘80s café scene in Back to the Future Part 2, except without the rigidity toward epoch specific authenticity - and weird shaped Pepsi product placement.
Indeed, what Pink and his pals are striving for is what all great examples of cinematic wistfulness aim to accomplish - a sense of celebrated or shared memory. Like a similarly themed (but much more serious) movie, Adventureland, there is no desire to be wholly universal or broad. Instead, Adam, Nick and Lou are seen as men mired in their own personal purgatory, meshed with what almost everyone of a certain age suffers from - that most knotty of psychological syndromes, the “what ifs”. Cusack’s character wonders if his problems with love stem from a horrific break-up with his “great white buffalo” teen girlfriend. Robinson is so henpecked that all he can worry about is his yet to turn 10 wife-to-be. Corddry, on the other hand, represents the second half of the condition - the unswerving belief that he can still salvage his shoddy life. All it takes is a little cosmic cheating, a few manipulations of the destined continuum and…BANG! No more mid-life crisis of quiet desperation.
The core conflict in Hot Tub Time Machine comes from this bro-back and forth, this desire for Lou to take advantage of the past (“let’s invent Girls Gone Wild”) in sharp contrast to his friends fiery determination to stick to the same stoic path. Jacob is the veiled voice of reason, a nod to the demographic the dirtier quips clearly aim for. But Hot Tub Time Machine doesn’t necessarily speak to the teen, especially when you consider the average anticipated audience members was born a decade after the events depicted onscreen. And will someone who wasn’t cognizant before the new millennium really appreciate Cusack’s presence and what means? Or Chevy Chase? Or Red Dawn? Or William Zabka? Some free time spent galvanizing one’s motion picture nerdiness in front of the home theater system suggests “Yes”. But for those more in the know, Hot Tub Time Machine becomes a very public private joke.
Besides, this is one laugh out loud riot, some lines so deliriously outrageous that they demand a repeat - if only to catch the other raucous asides you’re probably howling over. The acting is excellent, the foursome finding the right chemistry to keep their bonds energetic and believable. Sure, there are things that really don’t work that well (Chase seems wasted here…almost literally) while one imagines an “unrated” director’s cut that expands on some of the movie’s many open-ended mysteries (just what the Hell did happen on that fateful trip to Cincinnati???). As feel good farces go, Hot Tub Time Machine is a mindless minor masterpiece. It’s dumb, insane, and unmitigatedly adolescent. It may not make you appreciate growing older and/or your present problematic predicament, but it is guaranteed to make you smile - a lot!