Hot Tub Time Machine is a strange mixture of the obnoxious, offensive, vulgar comedy that is so typical of modern comedy films and a typical John Cusack zany romantic comedy. The zanyness is just enough to distract from the vulgarity but it could have been so much more if it had the courage to step away from the (inexplicably) commercially successful vulgar comedy.
There is some mild discussion of plot points here and some detailed discussion (and ranting) after the clearly marked spoiler heading.
The main premise is that three guys who have been friends since the 1980s are all for some reason dissatisfied with their lives. They all have regrets and failings and when one of them ends up in hospital they get together and reminisce about the good old times. In order to help their sick friend recuperate they make a plan to go away to a ski lodge where they used to party and relive some of the Good Old Times.
Of course you can never go back and the idyllic ski resort that they remember from better times has turned into a run down and sleazy place. Much like Cusack’s Martin Blank returning to his high school after 10 years in the brilliant Grosse Point Blank, much of the first part of the film is given over to the main characters being comedically surprised about how things have changed. Given the title of the film, it is not really a spoiler to reveal that they find that they can indeed go back. However, they soon find that the good old days weren’t quite as rosy as they remember them being either. Much of the rest of the film comprises the main characters being comedically surprised about how different the 1980s are from their recollections of the 1980s.
The comedy ensues as the 3 older characters from the present desperately struggle to recreate events as they remember them happening in the 80s in a vain attempt to avoid changing the course of history. There doesn’t seem to be any consideration in their planning that they wouldn’t get to go back to the present or that they wouldn’t want to go back to their same old crappy lives when they do. An interesting example of characters acting as if they already know how the story is going to end in a time travel movie where, theoretically at least, they do know how the story ends depending on your particular favourite flavour of time travel and causality etc. Probably best not to think about that too much and just sit back for the laughs.
Incongruously, given that the 3 old dudes seem to be inhabiting the physical bodies of their younger selves, they have also taken with them someone who hadn’t even born then. They don’t seem to worry at all about this causing a paradox and let him wander around interacting with people all over the place! Of course this is a comedy and not a serious science fiction film so there are all sorts of plot holes and nonsense that aren’t even worth mentioning. In fact, I would argue that any plot holes or ridiculous physics explanations are just part of the comedy.
Most of the characters are nothing much to talk about. Cusack is his usual lovable bumbling self and portrays caricatures of some of his previous roles which brings an extra sense of nostalgia and familiarity to the film. Rob Corddry is mostly insufferable as the obnoxious jock Lou but is the only character allowed to develop at all during the film. Craig Robinson doesn’t get to do much either; his character is generally reduced to a caricature of a man dominated by his wife and terrified of other women in case he has an affair with them.
Clark Duke’s job as the only main character never to have been in the 1980s is twofold: firstly he responds with the required look of shock and surprise to any 1980s technology or fashion he encounters and second he is sarcastic and rude about the main characters, especially Lou who it seems hates him in turn.
Each of the main characters has some kind of major regret from the period (breaking up with a girl, getting beaten up etc.) and much of the comedy revolves around them trying to recreate these painful situations while also wrestling with the desire to make them turn out differently. There are some great scenes, especially with the over-the-top anti-communist Ski Patrol leader and his much more liberal number 2 who are constantly trying to derail the heroes’ plans.
SPOILERS – and a bit of a rant.
I was very disappointed with the ending in that 2 of the main characters obviously have no recollection of the many ways in which their lives have changed for the better by their actions in the past. What is the point of travelling back in time 30 years and changing the past so that those 30 years are much more enjoyable for you if you don’t get to live through any of those years to get Back to the Future?
I would have liked to see a bit more travelling around in time rather than going to just one particular day although I suppose there is a danger of becoming too much like Bill and Ted or Back to the Future if you go down that route.
Semi-serious ranting from here on…
There is a very uncomfortable and ill-advised scene where one of the characters phones up his future wife as a young child to berate her for having an affair. Although the young actress was obviously not present when the dialogue was filmed, the film gives the impression of a grown man using very graphic sexual language to a young child. This action would be considered sexual assault or abuse if it happened in real life but like much violence towards women in films is passed off as just something that happens and can be laughed at. At the end of the movie we find out that his wife didn’t have an affair because of the talking to he gave her when she was a child. This is presented as a good/funny thing but seems essentially to be a form of mental abuse or gaslighting which is really anything but amusing.
I’ve written before about the worrying tendency of sexual violence towards women being written off as normal, desirable, funny or all 3 in comedy movies in the past but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it involving a minor. Obviously this is only a small part of the film and the film makers obviously do not intend to portray this behaviour as desirable. However the decision to put it in the film at all is questionable and although the other characters react negatively to these actions, their response is by no means strong enough in terms of pointing out how unacceptable it is.