This is one trip down memory lane that few viewers wanted to take, and it is easy to see why: HOT TUB TIME MACHINE is an unwieldy welding-together of sentimental soul-searching and gross out humor. The audience interested in the pathos will be repulsed by the crude comedy, and the audience waiting to laugh at the crude comedy will be bored by the pathos.
The story plays as if someone pitched the film as an “R-rated spin on BACK TO THE FUTURE.” Two middle-aged men take a suicidal friend to a ski resort to cheer him up; along with a younger nephew, the end up transported back to the 1980s by the titular “Hot Tub Time Machine” (which is an actual line in the film, and actually gets a chuckle, thanks to the deliberately hokey delivery by Craig Robinson). Their disruptive presence in the past threatens the future existence of the nephew, who was apparently conceived on this eventful weekend. The question becomes how to get back to the future before some inadvertent action unleashes the “butterfly effect” with catastrophic consequences (like “Hitler becoming president,” as one characters suggests, ignoring the fact that, even twenty-five years in the past, Hitler is already dead).
Unfortunately, the script is marred by inconsistencies that render the storyline pointless. A mysterious repairman (Chevy Chase) shows up to fix the broken hot tub time machine and informs the the three middle-aged men that, in order to keep the timeline unruptured, they must relive the exact events of the long-ago weekend they spent at the resort, then return to the future within twenty-four hours. This leads to one of the script’s amusing touches: many of the events that need to be relived are extremely painful, and the characters are understandably reluctant to experience them a second time.
Around the time you are starting to wonder why anyone would wax nostalgic for a place filled with such miserable memories, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE makes a big mistake: having milked the concept for a few gags, the script allows everyone drifts off and do whatever they want, future consequences be damned. In effect, the story’s “time lock” is unlocked, but the script blunders on regardless. With the central plot device essentially ignored, there is no longer any engine driving the narrative, and the story disintegrates into a muddled mess of uninvolving episodes. When the film itself cannot even decide on its own rules, we have little reason to care about whether the characters stay in the past or return to the future.
This is not quite enough to ruin the film’s best running joke, but it does hurt: Giving HOT TUB TIME MACHINE’s best performance, Crispin Glover (the father from BACK TO THE FUTURE) plays a bellhop with an understandable chip on his shoulder: the poor fellow has only one arm – at least in present day; in the past, he is perfectly normal (well, as normal as Crispin Glover can be). Knowing that the bellhop is bound to lose the arm, the audience squirms at each potential catastrophe (among other things, the character creates ice sculptures with a chainsaw that he hurls up into the air). Even better, the script forces viewers into the uncomfortable position of not only anticipating – but welcoming – the eventual dismemberment, because we don’t want some change in the past to result in something like “Hitler becoming president” (as one character suggests, overlooking the fact that Hitler is already dead, even in the past). The problem is, once the four leads have abandoned trying to recreate their own miserable past lives, it makes no sense that the bellhop should be forced to suffer his misfortune – and yet the film keeps urging us to anticipate the gorey event (which, when it comes, is done in a MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL style that doesn’t jibe with the film’s overall tone).*
There are a handful good laughs in between the blow-job jokes, as when one character, angry and drunk and eager to use his knowledge of the future to lash out at the characters in the past, warns that John Lennon will be shot – then realizes that this has already happened. John Cusack has a few nice moments that make you almost understand why he would be in such a stinker. Chevy Chase is at least tolerably amusing (which is saying something, these days). And as big a mess as the film is, its strange combination of elements is just weird enough to be interesting – not good, but interesting.
In the end, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE tries to preach a message about friendship and the value of sticking together throughout the years. It may even have been intended with heart-felt sincerity, but you can’t help noticing that, the real reason the story turn out well, is that one character cheats, using his future knowledge to make a fortune. Friendship may be esteemed, but money makes the world go ’round.
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010). Directed by Steve Pink. Written by Josh Heald and Sean Anders & John Morris. Cast: John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Crispin Glover, Lyndsy Fonseca, Chevy Chase, Lizzy Caplan.
- And if you stop and think about it, there is no reason the fateful accident had to happen on this particular weekend. The bellhop could have lost his arm anytime during the ensuing decades, but the writers seem to have never considered this.