The (Hot Tub) Time (Machine) of Our Lives
Reviews of “Hot Tub Time Machine” have been mixed, but those who love it really love it. The NY Times’s A.O. Scott went so far as to make the movie a “Critics’ Pick,” writing, “viewers of a certain age and background — let’s say those who know the lyrics to ‘Jessie’s Girl’ by heart, even if they never really liked that song — are likely to endure the merry anarchy with a twinge of pained, slightly nauseated nostalgia.” He meant this as a good thing. At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir wrote, “‘Hot Tub Time Machine” takes the universal human longing to reimagine and relive the past — which has fueled artists and poets from the Lascaux cave-painters through Proust and Fitzgerald — and reduces it to cheap, foul and thoroughly amoral humor.” Again, this was a compliment.
Slate’s Dana Stevens was much less enamored, which, she writes, leaves her “genuinely saddened.” This makes sense: the movies’ concept (or even just its title) is pretty irresistible, but that doesn’t make it bulletproof. More than many other movies, I think, this is one you love in direct proportion to how much you relate to it — and here, relating to the dudes matters more than relating to the 80’s. Both Stevens and Scott may love John Cusack, but only one of them might as well be him. (I don’t mean to make this a clear-cut gender issue, though I fully admit to appreciating the straight-to-DVD Amy Poehler/Rachel Dratch comedy “Spring Breakdown” — which has a lot in common with “Hot Tub Time Machine,” actually — mostly because it’s stupidity has the novelty of revolving around girls.) Not to nit-pick apostrophe placement, but Scott’s “Critics’ Pick” here is transparently a “Critic’s Pick.” And there’s something sort of adorable about that.
The movie’s much-hyped release inspired a glut of articles commenting on 80’s nostalgia itself, as if it’s a new discovery, or something that’s been in short supply. In a tone that was more fanzine or high school newspaper than Newspaper of Record, the Times’s Dave Itzkoff subjected John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry and Clark Duke to probing questions like “In the 1980s what did you think you’d be doing with your life in the year 2010?” “What’s an embarrassing fashion style that you’ll admit to sporting in that era?” “What’s your most vivid memory of Michael Jackson from the 1980s?” and (really) “Tiffany or Debbie Gibson?” There was also with a slideshow, seemingly meant to provide visitors to planet earth with the most basic of 80’s primers: exhibits included “The A Team,” Debbie Gibson, “Dynasty” and of course, John Cusack himself. Meanwhile, the writers of the Washington Post’s Celebritology blog pondered what they would do if a hot tub transported them back to 1986, and Entertainment Weekly asked, “Did ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ Make You Miss the 80’s?”
The answer to that last semi-rhetorical question is simple: No, because everyone has been lusting after the 80’s for years now (or at least pretending to). When it comes down to it, it hardly matters that “Hot Tube Time Mahcine” focuses on that particular decade: the setting is just an excuse to milk regrettable styles for laughs, and it happens to coincide with a period of time when the lead actors could believably have been in their primes. The 80’s kitsch—Legwarmers! Cassettes! Super Mario Brothers!—is a crutch, and nothing pulls people into theaters like the chance to ridicule something they’re vaguely implicated in.
But there’s a sweet sadness underneath the rote homophobia and bodily fluids. Once you’ve gotten past the predictable gross-out laughs, you’re left with a story premised on disappointment and regret, and the assumption that being “grown up” means a life of misery and soul-crushing compromise. This is just the latest in a long line of movies that build a plot around revisiting experiences from one’s younger days, in the hopes of doing things better this time around (see “Never Been Kissed,” “Billy Madison,” and “Spring Breakdown”). That “Hot Tub Time Machine” revisits a time of glory (a winter ski weekend, sex and drugs!) rather than humiliation (perpetual virginity, no date to the prom) only makes the characters’ reality checks more depressing. They don’t get to re-do a mortifying experience, triumphing over it in a way that helps them become stronger, more confident adults. Instead, they look back on what they thought were their glory days, and see a time that wasn’t nearly as awesome as they remember. The dick jokes help ward off despair.
If you get things right in high school, the movie suggests, you could be set for life. But if your future happiness rests on the decisions you make when you’re 19, you’re screwed — there’s basically no way you’ll make good ones when you’re living in that moment. In their second shot at 1986, the guys of “Hot Tub Time Machine” are only able to make better choices because they know how the future turned out, and it terrifies them.
So if you aren’t lucky enough to get this kind of second chance via magical hot tub, here’s some basic advice: It’s generally a good idea to spend time in deep, meaningful conversation with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl reporter from Spin Magazine, instead of the shallow, annoying girlfriend you don’t even like. You’ll be able to tell them apart pretty easily: one has big hair and vacant eyes, and the other looks like someone you might meet in 2010. She’s ahead of her time…and yours.
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