Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2010

Jacuzzi + time travel = wasted potential

Yes, those two things could have made a beautiful partnership; unfortunately, in this movie, they don't

Hot Tub Time Machine
MGM
Director: Steve Pink
Screenplay: Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris
Starring: John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, Lyndsy Fonseca, Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan and Chevy Chase
Rated R / 1 hour, 40 minutes
(out of four)

Conventional wisdom says that Hot Tub Time Machine is an inherently dumb concept. I mean, just look at that title, right? "So it's a hot tub .  . .and it's ALSO a time machine? Well that's just silly!" The conventional wisdom, and the practitioners thereof, can point to the unapologetically to-the-point title as proof of the concept's fundamental mindlessness - instead of recognizing the clever absurdity of its juxtaposition. (I mean, is a hot tub really that much more ridiculous a time-travel device than a DeLorean?)

(Also, just for the sake of time machine-related argument: DeLorean > hot tub > phone booth > that stupid remote from Click.)

Yeah that's right, I insist that Hot Tub Time Machine is, in fact, a great premise, rife with possibilities that unfortunately go unfulfilled. If this movie had a director who could mine the material and take the film in the right, well, direction, this could have been a fantastic comedy. If only the writers hadn't sold their material so short. I mean, didn't they see what they had on their hands? A hot tub that doubles as a time machine + 1980s kitsch. Tell me that doesn't make you laugh. You can't, can you?! So then why does most of the movie feel like it's on autopilot? One thing that will always drive me crazy is watching a movie that leaves so many comic possibilities twisting in the wind.

An attempt to combine the carefree idiocy of so many '80s movie plots with the self-awareness that didn't arrive until a decade later, Hot Tub Time Machine follows a group of down-on-their-luck guys who go back to the ski resort where all their youthful memories lay buried, only to be transported back to their seminal winter of '86 (as their younger selves, no less) in a blur of hot tub-induced debauchery.

Naturally, when they get there, they have rules they're supposed to follow (you know, the typical time-travel paradox/butterfly effect stuff) in order to keep the time-space continuum in balance. Or something like that.

Anyway, that proves a rather difficult task, as the boys are constantly confronted by the regrets, embarrassments and pleasurable indulgences of their teenage years.

The movie essentially sets up the same dynamic as a handful of other movies about guys in their 30s and 40s hitting a mid-life crisis as they wax nostalgic about their younger days, but with the added wrinkle of the characters being able to face those younger days head-on. Within that framework, there is ample opportunity for comic invention - opportunity that too often goes wasted.

To be sure, the filmmakers know their target perfectly well; all of the most amusing (or at least most scorn-worthy) stereotypes and '80s cultural touchstones are on display, and the film is littered with shots and plot devices lifted straight out of an '80s movie marathon.

But no one knows what to do with any of it. The filmmakers know their stuff - they just don't know how to explore it, or parody it, or play with it. Let me give you an example. Fittingly, since this is the mid-'80s and all, absurd Cold War paranoia becomes a plot element - and I thought right away that that, at least, had a chance to be glorious. Instead, it's brought up to be used, rather haphazardly, in one sequence of plot resolution. And that's it. That's all anyone could think of to do with it. I mean, if a movie is going to have ideas, the least it could do is know how to use them.

This is the kind of movie I wanted to like more than I actually did. The actors give it their all. It's great to see John Cusack let loose in a movie like this - especially since he was such a staple of the '80s high-school flicks this one draws influence from. And two of the film's finer elements come in the form of a pair of fellow staples from that decade - Crispin Glover (whom the film's funniest running gag centers around) and Chevy Chase (whom the film's second-funniest running gag centers around).

I'd like to admire Hot Tub Time Machine on terms of sheer audacity . . . only it doesn't have any. Just an inkling of something that could have been. If this movie were to look back on itself two decades from now, it would be disappointed.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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