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Remembrance of Hot Tubs Past

April 9, 2010

L-R: Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Rob Corddry and John Cusack star in a movie whose title tells you everything you need to know.

According to Freud, men live in constant, if repressed, fear of having their penises cut off.

Analogizing from that insight, psychoanalytic film theorists have argued that film can awaken this fear because of the disjunction between reality (man) and image (penis). But traditional movies mask the dissonance through the use of smooth editing and a realist aesthetic. The occasional subversive film, though, exposes the illusion of cinema and reawakens the primal terror of castration, or so the argument goes. Hot Tub Time Machine may be such a film. It certainly shares Freud’s fixation with sex and feces.

Calling a movie about a hot tub that works as a time machine Hot Tub Time Machine is like calling Casablanca “Cynical American and Gorgeous Foreigner Meet Again.” It exposes the artifice of story development. And when said film is projected incorrectly (as it was when I saw it), revealing parts of the frame never meant to be seen—like overhead microphones—the viewer is jolted out of the spell of realism. Next stop: nightmares about severed schmendricks. Or at least, knowing laughs.

As with Freud, everything in Hot Tub Time Machine comes back to men and their inadequacies. In Hot Tub Time Machine, a trio of 40-something friends returns to the ski resort where they spent their salad days as teenagers. None of their lives turned out as they hoped: Adam’s (John Cusack) most recent relationship has imploded, Nick’s (Craig Robinson) dreams of a music career never panned out and Lou (Rob Corddry) is a suicidal alcoholic. For no discernible reason, they bring along Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), a 20-year-old Second Life junkie.

But as any guy knows, there’s no amount of disappointment that a drunken night in a hot tub can’t fix. And what a night it is. With Public Enemy’s “Louder than a Bomb” blaring from the soundtrack, the four men drink until they start seeing naked women and men in bear-suits. But the next day, something is amiss. The resort has been turned into a pastel wonderland and some dude is listening to a Walkman. Yes, the Hot Tub Time Machine has transported them to 1986.

Plagiarizing freely, if lovingly, from Back to the Future, the date of their arrival in the past just so happens to be the night that changed all their lives. (This includes Jacob. He was conceived that night. Surprised?) This opens up the ages-old time travel dilemma: do you keep the past intact, or correct your youthful mistakes? In a hilariously incoherent conversation, the guys debate whether their situation most resembles The Terminator, Stargate, Time Cop or The Butterfly Effect.

The answer? The Hangover, or perhaps Old School. Sean Pink’s film shares much with Todd Phillips’ guy-movie touchstones, from a penchant for oddball cameos (Crispin Glover, William Zabka) to scenes of gratuitous inebriation (see bear-suits) to its hyperactive pop soundtrack. Pink uses the soundtrack more slyly than Phillips did in The Hangover, which is one of the luxuries of making a film about the ‘80s—Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” and “Home Sweet Home” feature prominently, while The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” provides accompaniment both sincere and ironic to visions of an altered future.

As in Old School and The Hangover, the casting was done with an eye on comic variety rather than any care for social plausibility. Cusack looks tired in the Luke Wilson-straight-man role, while Rob Cordrry’s acidity is only occasionally as hilarious as he thinks it is. Your guess is as good as mine what Duke is doing here. But the movie is saved by Robinson, who has the rare ability to make sangfroid just as funny as vulnerability. Like Will Ferrell in his prime, he’s nearly incapable of being unfunny.

Luckily, Pink’s sight gags and the so-stupid-it’s-smart screenplay by Scott Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris save the cast from themselves, keeping them busy in an insane, tasteless grab bag of sex jokes, amputation jokes and more sex jokes. And even though we’re now entering our third decade of making fun of the ‘80s, it still provides a surprising amount of comic mileage. The only demerit goes to the excess philosophizing about the need “to embrace the chaos,” which is really just code for “chase the hot cool girl who doesn’t remind you of your ex.”

In the film’s amusing finale of wish fulfillment, all the guys’ dreams have been turned into reality, and their regrets eradicated. The intended lesson here, though, is not that you can fix your past, but that true male friendship transcends time and space. Like most movies of its type, Hot Tub Time Machine is ultimately full of crap. Then again, so was Freud.

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