Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010)
After watching Black Knight last week, I was so royally pissed off at how formulaic it was that I decided to stop randomly picking my Time Out movies and attempt to look at what makes a good time travel comedy. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum from Martin Lawrence’s by-the-numbers Connecticut Yankee rip-off, we have Hot Tub Time Machine, a movie about four down-on-their-luck schlubs who are transported into their teenaged bodies circa 1986 via the titular hydrotherapeutic temporal displacement device. The film takes several risks… but do they all pay off?
Hot Tub Time Machine has an amazing set-up: Lou (Rob Corddry) gets carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage, leading his friends Nick (Craig Robinson) and Adam (John Cusack) to think that he attempted suicide, since his life is so shitty. To cheer him (and, not exactly having their careers or relationships in order, themselves) up, they whisk him away to the Kodiak Valley Ski Lodge, in the hopes of reliving their crazy, drunken pasts. They drag along Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), who hangs out in his uncle’s basement playing Second Life all day, so he can learn how to get out there and live, man.
“Where we’re going, we don’t need– wait, yes, you need roads for a road trip. ROAD TRIP!”
This is a great layout for a comedy even without the time machine. There are about six other plot points I didn’t have room for in this summary, and they all pay off pretty well. Yet, as much as I like a dense, multi-layered story, there is just so much going on here. It all feels a bit inconsistent. Perhaps a better complaint would be “something for everyone.” The script jumps from dark to gross-out to parody to pop culture references to meta to coming-of-age so fast that the whole thing just feels… cheapened. Any line that made me laugh was typically followed by some poo poo or pee pee. And I know smart and dumb jokes can hit their stride in a perfect way, but these give you ‘Nam flashbacks to the kinds of awful comedies you’ve seen them in before.
That ain’t pudding! *BOIOIOING!*
Speaking of flashbacks, pretty much every time travel premise in the movie has been done before, but that’s not so bad. Black Knight hurt my brain because it took a single concept and did absolutely nothing with it. Hot Tub Time Machine steals from Back to the Future, It’s a Wonderful Life, Quantum Leap, and many other sources, but they manage to put their own spin on each. For example, Jacob is the only member of the group too young to have been born yet (and magically retains his teenaged body from 2010), so he wants to return immediately just in case their actions stop him from being born. The other three adults? Fuck that, let’s party! This is a great twist on Back to the Future: what if Marty McFly’s three dipshit pals were drinking themselves blind and fucking with history just for funsies, all while he’s trying not to fade out of existence? And if that’s not dark enough for you, once they make a pact to not change the future, enjoy them taking sick pleasure in watching a bellhop (Crispin Glover) they know will one day lose an arm find himself in a string of limb-threatening scenarios. They don’t just fail to warn him; they cheer at the possibility of dismemberment.
Hey, you, get your damn hand off.
The time travel rules, while being essentially magical and just as guilty of fudging the memories as Back to the Future, do check out, though I’ll admit I didn’t realize that until this, my second viewing. While I commend any time travel flick for keeping its internal logic straight, the regrettable dick-and-fart gags cancel out some cleverness.
I never thought I’d say this, but phoning in his performance was absolutely the right call for Chevy Chase.
“Yeap, flux neutron whatever, eat a dick.”
The wise mystical man who gives you the magic thing is an old cliché, but Chevy turns the role on its head playing the hot tub time machine’s mysterious repairman. See, the first time I watched this movie, I was hoping it would be like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but for time travel movies instead of musician biopics. What I got was The Hangover with some paradoxes, but Chevy does manage to take us more in the direction of parody. He knows what kind of dumb fantasy comedy he’s in, so he spews the same cryptic Yoda lines you might get from Morgan Freeman or Christopher Walken, but he just plain doesn’t give a fuck. I’m sure some of this attitude came from the writing, but Chevy elevates the idea of “it’s magic, just enjoy the fucking movie” to an art form.
I’m assuming a fair amount of improv went on during this shoot, which is probably for the better. The four leads are all talented comedic actors, and every line they deliver that actually warrants a laugh certainly feels natural and made up on the spot. They deserve a lot of credit for making the movie more watchable than it might have been.
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
Aww, remember when Quantum Leap had to build entire reversed sets to pull off their mirror shots? Nostalgiagasm. Green screen doesn’t cheapen that effect here, but it does make me miss Scott Bakula.
The kid playing young Clark Duke is uncanny!
This is a Hollywood production with a huge budget, so any vortexes or time ripples are CGI and look as good as CGI looks in your opinion. The one effect I don’t understand is why Jacob, the only character who wasn’t born in 1986, flickers like an old TV set. I’m not saying dissolves make any more sense for a time traveler whose future birth is threatened, but that’s almost as weird an effect choice as turning his head into a “404 Not Found” error message.
- As different as this is from Black Knight, there’s still a scene involving a time traveler performing a song that hasn’t been written yet. You really started something there, McFly.
- According to IMDb, the screenwriters were supposed to direct the movie, until John Cusack was cast and the job mysteriously went to his buddy Steve Pink. No amount of suggestive, nothing-to-see-here whistling is enough for this bit of trivia. Still, the writers’ resumés aren’t terribly inspiring, so I won’t speculate on if we might have gotten a better movie out of the original deal.
- The casting director should get a medal for finding the young versions of Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and John Cusack. Seriously, tell me they wouldn’t put this guy in a gritty Say Anything remake…
“There’s a storm coming, Mr. Dobler.”
- Should you be wondering about Cinemanaut John‘s take on this movie’s place in John Cusack’s body of work, he reviewed it as part of his Cusackathon last year. You can find it here.
THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
It’s been a while, but finally, some characters who really freak out about time travel! All of the hot tubbers are constantly unsure about the rules, but for an added bonus, they’re also snorting cocaine at the time.
“AAAGH! Like The Terminator! It’s cyclical! Right? The machines send Schwarzenegger back to kill Sarah Connor so that John Connor could never be born, but if John Connor don’t send Michael Biehn back to protect her, then they never FUCK! And John Connor ain’t born in the first place! (whimpering)”
Watching this for the second time in a large group of friends, I can admit this movie has its moments, but it could have been funnier. Still, it tried some ballsy things and that gets it loads more respect than should be given to Black Knight, which, as an aside, Leonard Maltin gives half a star more than Hot Tub Time Machine. The script balances sixteen plotlines at once and manages not to drop any of them, but while that gets you a gold star on the page, a lot can change on the way to the screen. And really, aren’t most gross-out comedies tightly storyboarded, so all the horse semen and hooker farts pay off in just the right places? No, what matters in a comedy is more than just a balanced storytelling equation. Hot Tub Time Machine has its moments of fun (brilliance, even), but it never feels like a completely satisfying movie experience. Much like Safety Not Guaranteed is an above-average romcom, this is by no means a great time travel film, but it’s one of the more intriguing gross-out comedies I’ve seen in a while. In that category, rent this and fuck The Hangover.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.