Although it makes more sense in 2010 to make an homage to 1980s teenage sex/romantic comedies than it did in 1998 with The Wedding Singer—enough time has passed now to really play-up on the decade’s cringing sense of nostalgia—Hot Tub Time Machine only succeeds in that a lot of the original films weren’t really as good as we remember.
They are all, however, better than Hot Tub Time Machine.
The film tries to do too much with as little effort as possible. The results are predictable—a total and unremitted mess. Here is a list of the top-ten flaws in Hot Tub Time Machine:
1. Too many characters.
Or, more specifically, too many main characters. The premise of the film is three men, Adam (John Cussack), Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson), hitting their mid-life crisis return to the site of their wildest party weekend—a ski hill pointedly reminiscent of the one in Better Off Dead—where they are transported back to 1986 by way of a hot tub. Tagging along is Adam’s nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), who serves as straight man on their hijinks-ensuing quest.
Along the way we watch as the three men make peace with the past and their current crappy lives and Jacob comes out of his Second Life–playing, basement-dwelling shell. Only he doesn’t actually come out of this shell, but we’re meant to understand he does. EVEN THOUGH WE’RE NOT SHOWN IT.
On paper the premise is awesomely radical to the max. The problem is these kinds of stories only work well with one or two main characters. Either as a buddy movie or an ensemble, but with additional members of the cast relegated to the background. This is especially important when so much time is spent on gags aping scenes and characters from ’80s films.
We don’t have time to watch Nick work through his marital problems, Lou his existential problems, Adam his, uh, marital and existential problems and Jacob learn how to talk to people (girls) without texting. Not to mention the on-going shenanigans of Crispin Glover‘s accident-prone bellhop, the ski-patrol douchebags or the unneccessary cameos by Chevy Chase as the mysterious repairman. There’s really only enough time to tell the story of two of the main characters.
Though enjoyable to watch as ever, Cussack’s character Adam doesn’t bring anything to the table. You really feel like he’s only there because Cussack was in Better Off Dead and he’s needed to make the gimmick work.
Nick’s story is equally unaffecting. Perhaps without Lou’s and Adam’s stories, more could have been done with his frustrated musician character other than a nod to the Chuck Berry scene in Back To The Future.
Really, the only two character arcs of any worth in the film are Lou’s and Jacob’s. The characters are the only two with a genuine connection and a need to grow from mutual antipathy to love and appreciation. If their stories had been given room to develop, the movie could have worked. We would have actually seen Jacob evolve from an antisocial basement-nerd into a socially functioning young man instead of just a few weak gestures in that direction.
The film needed streamlining in the character department whether the Lou and Adam characters had been blended to suit Cussack or the role of Lou had been given to another actor.
This last point is important because…
2. Rob Corddry is NOT Jack Black.
Rumour has it Jack Black turned down the role of Lou because the character has no redeeming qualities and is ultimately unlikable. Black contractually only plays characters who are ultimately sympathetic it seems. Yet when Black (who Lou was very clearly written for) turned down the part, the character was not changed to suit Rob Corddry’s strengths (which are?-ed.).
The thing is Black could have given the character some more depth and elevated Lou from a one-dimensional douchebag into a character whose journey was worth my time to follow. You don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone. Much like you don’t realize you’d ever write a review lamenting the loss of Jack Black’s acting ability until you do.
3. Homophobic humour
It’s difficult to tell if writers of Hot Tub Time Machine are merely homophobic or if the gay jokes were a misguided attempt to capture the spirit of ’80s commedies and their off-colour humour. There’s some really unfortunate jokes in those old films—Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles comes to mind—but rewatching them now, there isn’t the malicious intent this film seems to harbour.
When Lt. Harris stumbles into the gay bar in Police Academy, the humour is in his discomfort. Also the leather-daddies are portrayed as powerful individuals deserving of, at least, a back-handed sort of respect. In Revenge of the Nerds Lamar’s literal limp wrist becomes a strength in the games. Both of those films poke fun at homosexuality, but it’s in a friendly manner. In Hot Tub Time Machine, being gay or being confronted with homosexual situations is portrayed as the WORST THING THAT COULD POSSIBLY HAPPEN EVER. The joke goes beyond showing Nick and Lou in uncomfortable situations and moves the humour to a mean-spirited place.
4. Patriarchical messaging
There is a running gag in the film where the character Nick is seen to be “less of a man” because he’d made the “progressive” gesture of hyphenating his surname to Webber-Agnou when he got married. The predictable outcome of the film is he returns to the present as “Nick Webber” again, this time with a wife who worships him. The message that millenia of women taking their husband’s names somehow did not lessen them in the same was as a man taking his wife’s name is subtly, yet staggeringly, offensive.
5. The young dudes > the old dudes.
Mostly seen in brief flashes in mirrors, the actors who play the 20-year-old versions of Adam, Lou and Nick are more compelling than their 40-something counterparts yet they are given almost no screen time. Every time I caught a glimpse of the young Lou, I wished I were watching a film with him in it.
6. Blaine and Chaz are wasted.
Every ’80s comedy has the privileged douchebag nemesis to the main character(s). Often they have names like Blaine and Chaz. Sometimes they actually have the names Blane (Pretty In Pink) and Chas (Back To School). These characters, with their perfect hair and neck-constricting collars, are an integral part of these films. They are the challenge our hero(s) need to overcome on their quest to coolness, losing their virginity or winning the girl.
It was brilliant to see these archetypes recreated so perfectly in Hot Tub Time Machine, as Lou’s ski-patrol rivals, but it was only to be disappointed later as they were cast aside to make room for Cussack’s relatively pointless storyline.
The rivalry between Lou and the militaristic, Red Dawn-worshiping Blaine should have been the central story in the plot and not one of three equally developed (or ignored) threads. Also, in keeping with films like Can’t Buy Me Love, Lou’s love interest really should have been Blaine’s girlfriend whereas she was a character who existed outside that storyline altogether.
The elements for a brilliant homage/parody of an ’80s teen-romp were all there. But they were wasted potential.
7. Jacob is wasted
Continuing with the theme of wasted potential, something Hot Tub Time Machine excels at, Clark Duke’s Jacob is another prime example. Really, aside from Crispin Glover, Duke turns in the only truly enjoyable performance in the whole debacle. Corddry’s Lou is too seedy and weak to truly identify with or respect on any level and Cussack’s ambient charm can’t quite disguise he’s phoning his performance in, but Duke is enjoyable and entertaining in every scene he is in. Further argument that the plot should have been built around him and Lou instead of the de facto focus, Cussack.
There is also the classic set-up, as mentioned in point 1, for Jacob to come out of his shell. Separated from technology and texting devices, he’s going to learn how to communicate with real live girls, right? That’s what the point of making him a Second Life-addicted nerd is right? Not really.
There’s not much point to a lot of his character’s set-up. They sort of touch on the idea he’s been changed by his experiences in 1986, but the pay-off either ended up on the cutting room floor or they didn’t bother to fully flesh-out the scene figuring the audience could fill-in the formulaic plot-points for themselves. Well, yes, the audience can. Sure. We’re pretty smart on the whole. But that’s not—what is becoming increasingly missing from Hollywood films—basic storytelling.
8. The ending is bullshit
I’m sure I won’t really be spoiling anything if I tell you when they make it back to present day, it’s an alternate timeline where all their lives are vastly improved (similar to Back To The Future). I will be spoiling it slightly if I tell you Lou stays in 1986 and makes everything better for everyone. That’s great, right?
Except he’s the only one who benefits from the new and improved 24 years! Yes, they all have better careers and personal lives, but they don’t have memories of any of it. It would be heartbreaking to have only the memories of two-and-a-half broken decades but photos on your walls of the perfect life you could have lived.
We all wonder about those other lives that might have been, but to have PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF taunting you every day… that’s a subtle kind of hell I’d never considered before.
And it’s a hell that might actually have made an interesting film in itself as Adam and Nick’s lives slowly revert to the crap they left behind when they realize don’t have the memories and skill sets built-up over 24 years to function in their “new” lives.
9. What the fuck is Chevy Chase doing in the movie?
Okay, Chevy Chase—once you recover from how old he’s suddenly become—is great. But the Pleasantville-esque mysterious repairman character is one more element too many. They had a choice to make. Crispin Glover’s bellhop or Chevy Chase. They didn’t choose. Both are in here.
To be fair, Glover is used excellently and just the right amount of time is spent on him. That’s about the only successful turn in the whole film. But this is at the expense of the Chase character feeling like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Too many ideas, too many strong characters, no balance whatsoever.
10. Anachronisms, musical and otherwise.
The Wedding Singer was clever in that the filmmakers never say exactly when in the 1980s it is supposed to take place. So when Miami Vice (1984) seems to be contemporary with Thriller (1982), it’s not really a problem. It’s almost an “alternate-universe” take on the ’80s.
Hot Tub Time Machine is set specifically in 1986. A lot of the details were spot on, but occasionally a song would jump out that felt out of place. Though New Order‘s “Blue Monday“ is a perennial classic, it might have been more believable if Blaine and ski-patrol’s “fight song” had been a song that was actually popular in Middle America in ’86.
New Wave and pop were dead by then. Bon Jovi and hair metal was freakin’ huge. Given Blaine’s patriotic stance, “Born In The USA” might have been an acceptable choice, if an older song were to be used. I think the intent was Blaine would listen to “faggy” pop music instead of rock (Lou’s defining music), but guys like Blaine didn’t really listen to New Order unless it happened to be a current top-ten hit.
There’s also an absurd tacked-on sub-plot where Lou fronts “Motley Lou” (replacing Vince Neal), and it’s implied writes “Home Sweet Home“, a song released in 1985.
Google tells me the yellow Sports Walkman was actually released in 1986. But I swear it wasn’t until ’87 or ’88 before anyone actually owned one. An older model perhaps would have been more accurate, though less iconic and recognizable in a 2-second shot. But that’s the kind of nit-picking that used to drive me mad watching movies set in 1962 with my dad. I still feel like more attention to anachronisms was paid in films like Back To The Future and Stand By Me.
One thing I’m thankful for, that this film helped me realize, is that if I ever do find a hot tub time machine, I’m throwing a Terminator in and making sure director Steve Pink is never born. I never would have thought about that before.