Surprises Found in Hot Tub Time Machine

15-Jul-10 2:00 PM by
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I don't go to the movies very often these days, and I certainly wasn't going to make an exception for something called Hot Tub Time Machine. Science-fiction fan that I am, I thought this film looked more like the generic "aging hipsters acting like college brats" film that you'd more often find starring Will Ferrell. Imagine my surprise when the film actually got good reviews — including from Roger Ebert, who suggested it succeeds beyond any expectations suggested by the title. With its recent release on DVD, I decided to give it a shot.

After some introductions, the film sends four friends back to a ski valley they last visited as high school seniors. The nostalgic quartet is composed of John Cusack as down-on-his-luck (is there any other kind of John Cusack?) Adam, Craig Robinson (The Office's Darryl Philbin) as discouraged and whipped Nick Webber, Rob Corddry as alcoholic, sexaholic Lou, and Clark Duke as the sheltered Jacob. The four are an eclectic mix with different responses to and advice for every situation, ensuring each encounter they have is a lively one.

There is some genuine camaraderie among the four, as this film is more than a sexual romp (though it's certainly that as well). Each time traveller suffers from regret not only how things turned out twenty years ago, but also the pattern of life choices that have led them to be miserable in the present. Rather than have company for their misery, the former best friends have drifted apart, losing the support and dreams they had for themselves and each other as kids. Returned to 1986, they hope they can recapture that passion and bring it back with them, at the same time that they are forced to face the beginning of their downfall.

The option of avoidance is withdrawn by Chevy Chase, who plays a mysterious repairman who encourages the travellers to not change the timeline. Unlike Don Knotts in Pleasantville, Chase's purpose and motivations are unknown. The four men nonetheless vacillate between sticking to history and avoiding unpleasant situations, even though there is no motivation to listen to Chase or consequence for not doing so. The struggle between doing what they want versus what they're "supposed" to do gives the film some tension, even if it is superficial.

HTTM's temporal mechanics are also paper-thin, with an ending that wouldn't hold up to any fan versed in science fiction. Yet the film does not exist in a vacuum, with several devices that work quite well. For example, the paradox of the four running into their younger selves is eliminated when they discover that they have effectively "quantum leaped" into their 18-year-old bodies, appearing as adults to each other (and the audience) but as kids to the residents of 1986. At times the film reminded me of nothing of much as Back to the Future — a parallel made intentional through several references, not the least of which is a recurring character played by Crispin Glover, aka George McFly. Plus, any movie with an Apple II is okay by me.

HTTM is a film that I can recommend without reservation, but with caveats: some of the humor is very base and even disgusting, and you have to be in the right mood (or have sufficiently low standards) to enjoy or even tolerate it. The movie's actors and director obviously did not take themselves very seriously, and it's important that the audience do the same to maximize their enjoyment. I watched the unrated DVD version of the film; without having seen the theatrical release, I would guess the differences are in the quantity of female nudity.

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