Searching for Lost Time in a Hot Tub Time Machine
Part I: Dude, Where’s My Hot Tub?
Hot Tub Time Machine. Two common nouns preceded by two modifiers: simplicity itself. But such a perfectly pitched phrase! A heavy, initial spondee resolving into a lilting dactyl that dances off the tongue. So concise, so replete with connotation, yet so musical and light that Sappho herself might have penned it. If it were a cookie, Marcel Proust would have savored it for days, crumb by flakey, buttery crumb.
So apt, so inevitable it seems, now that someone has gone through the heavy business of actually thinking it up and putting it into words, that it feels a part of the conceptual matrix that nature provided every one of us at birth. Hot tub time machine—of course!
I do nothing more than express the collective envy of hungry writers everywhere when I lament, “What didn’t I think that shit up first?”
Sadly, it is also their collective disappointment that sighs through me when I say how woefully short Hot Tub Time Machine the film falls from the Platonic ideal of the Hot Tub Time Machine.
Don’t get me wrong—this John Cuzack-Rob Corddry-Craig Robinson vehicle is not a half-bad example of its genre, the newly emergent teenage sex farce pushed into middle age. (I can’t bring myself to write bromance.) As I might have said back in the ‘80s, Hot Tub Time Machine has all mod cons: In its frames you will see poo and barf and pee, and hear poo and barf and pee jokes. You’ll catch a glimpse of eight or nine breasts. You’ll laugh when Rob Corddry says fuckin’ and dude in every line his character utters, even though you will not understand why you are laughing. You might even feel a twinge of compassion when the starring trio of of forty-something losers begin to realize that the glory days of their youth kind of sucked too.
But what you won’t see much of is a time traveling hot tub. You won’t see much of the ‘80s, either, which is the film’s other hook.
The ostensible setting is a Colorado ski resort in 1986—which is a cheap shot, because, as I can report from my own time-traveling adventures, from a cultural perspective ‘86 was perhaps the worst year of the ‘80s. It was the period when the descending arc of DayGlo intersected the rising fortunes of acid wash; when freshmen everywhere were entering high school and thinking they would be stepping into a John Hughs film, but weren’t. It was the year the Clash disbanded and Norwegian pop act a-ha garnered six MTV Music Video Awards for their hit single, a mashup of a Speed Racer cartoon and a Mentos commercial, remembered among hardcore collectors of vinyl as “Take on Me.”
It was also the year when Iran-Contra broke and when the Reagan Administration was finally forced to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic, so there was that too.
Poison’s 1986 debut offers glam AND metal.
And this works well enough, because—inasmuch as it is about anything at all—Hot Tub Time Machine is about the interior journey the characters make, back to a point in their lives before everything started to go wrong, when they were still being lured forward by their potential and not languishing under the weight of their choices. Truly a universal tale, for at every moment are not fresh ranks of golden haired Adonises embarking on that slow, sad march that leads to disillusioned, defeated, and self-doubting adulthood?
But universalism is precisely not what the phrase hot tub time machine promises. The conceit of the hot tub comes with its own, very specific temporal gravity. It is deeply intertwined with a particular historical moment, and that moment is not the ‘80s. In 1986, no teenager I knew would go near a hot tub. Doing so would have marked one as indelibly as driving an airbrushed van, or growing a mustache, or participating in an all-night D&D session. Friends who had hot tubs at home lived in mortal terror of returning one evening and finding their parents, pink and bloated in the frothy water, drinking boxed wine and getting a little too chummy with Dr. and Mrs. Padova from next door.
For children of the Us Festival, the hot tub was still radioactive from its intimate association with that most toxic of eras, the Me Decade.
Be sure to look for Part II, in which our intrepid time adventurer delves back to the age of free love and fast money and finds the origins of more than just hot-tub culture.
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