Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 23, 2010)
Some movies come with titles that tell you little about what to expect. And then there’s 2010’s Hot Tub Time Machine, a comedy about… a hot tub time machine.
When drunken, irresponsible Lou (Rob Corddry) ends up in the hospital after what may or may not have been a suicide attempt, his oldest pals come and visit him – though not eagerly. Lou’s behavior has alienated them over the years, and they’re not exactly happy campers themselves. Adam (John Cusack) just separated from his significant other, while Nick (Craig Robinson) is stuck in a dead-end job and frets that his wife (Kellee Stewart) cheated on him.
With no family willing to care for Lou, Adam and Nick agree to help him. To revive his spirits, they go to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where they enjoyed happier days in the mid-1980s. Adam’s 20-year-old nerdy nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) comes along for the ride as well.
It turns out that Kodiak Valley has seen much better days, but the guys try to party like it’s 1986 anyway – and soon that fantasy becomes a literal reality. As they frolic in their suite’s hot tub, it goes all kablooey and sends them back to the winter of 1986.
Actually, it returns the guys there to reinhabit their much younger bodies. While we see their older selves, the 80s denizens only view the men as boys. Jacob remains a 20-year-old, but ala Marty in Back to the Future, he starts to flicker as events threaten his very existence.
Because he fears “The Butterfly Effect”, Jacob urges the guys to relive their visit with no changes from the way it went down in 1986. They do their best to stick to this – until Adam makes a slight variation and the others decide to go their own way as well. The film follows the antics and their repercussions.
If I had to choose a phrase to describe Machine, it’d be “missed opportunity”. The movie could’ve been a riot on many levels. The simple 80s spoofing should generate laughs, and the story could’ve opened up many chances for the characters to mess with history and the timeline.
Neither of these areas develops very well. Granted, 80s mockery has been done before, so I partially appreciate the fact we don’t get too many gags in that vein. However, the decision to largely ignore the silliness of the era gives the movie a somewhat generic feel. Sure, the styles and music place us in the 80s, but they don’t accentuate the film or give it much personality. One could adapt it to 1976, 1966 or 1996 without much effort – the year plays a surprisingly small role.
Not that Machine really focuses too hard on 1986 itself. Some folks have criticized the manner in which the film plays fast and loose with year-specific details, and as one who lived through that period, I admit the artistic liberties can be a bit jarring. For instance, Poison was an unknown band in early 1986, not the big act the movie makes them out to be.
The movie never specifies if “winter 1986” means December 1986 or January/February, though it implies the latter. One event does date events, however. We see the January 11, 1987 Broncos/Browns game aired live, so the film appears to embrace that weekend as its chronology. However, it still wants us to believe we’re in 1986, so the choice makes no sense. Why not just say “Winterfest 1987” and avoid such an obvious timeline mistake? That’d also allow Poison to be more famous than they were in early 1986.
Many other anachronisms abound, but I don’t mind them a lot. When a movie tries hard to capture a specific time and fails, that’s more bothersome - ala Pirate Radio. On the other hand, Machine simply wants to spoof a generic concept of the 80s, so I don’t care that it fails to be truly 1986-specific.
That said, the choice of year makes me wonder if Machine sat on the shelf for a while before it earned a release. We’re clearly told that the tale takes place in 1986, and we also know that Jacob is 20. We learn he was conceived during the night depicted in the flick, which means he was born between late 1986 and mid 1987.
However, we also know that the movie’s “modern day” is definitely 2010. So what am I missing here? The film’s current year really should be 2007, not 2010. This isn’t a major issue, but it seems jarring, as the viewer becomes distracted by that chronological oddity.
I also suspect that the movie was made a while back due to the inclusion of an unfortunate Michael Jackson joke. In that gag, Nick attempts to discern the current year by asking what color Jackson is. When a girl replies “black”, he knows he’s in the past and freaks.
That’s not a great joke at any point in time, but a better one prior to June 2009. I’m a bit shocked that the line stayed in the film; I don’t think it’s necessarily tasteless, but it just seems like a strange choice since it implies a “modern day” in which Jackson still lives. After all, you wouldn’t go up to someone in 2010 and ask them that question.
Even if the movie didn’t suffer from a lack of good period-specific gags and the persistent impression that it was made years prior to its release, it simply fails to have much fun with its concept. When the guys try to avoid changing history, not much comedy results. When they let loose, not much comedy results. The movie boasts territory packed with amusing possibilities, and it rarely exploits these. It throws out the occasional sight gag or gross out joke but not much more.
Seldom have I seen a comedy with so much potential follow such a bland, generic path. I can’t blame the film’s lack of laughs on the cast, as Machine packs a nice roster of performers. They seem to enjoy the concept and they do their best to milk the humor.
But those attempts are in vain, as the core material simply lacks the cleverness or inspiration to succeed. Hot Tub Time Machine isn’t a bad film, and it manages to maintain our attention acceptably well. However, given the laughs it could’ve provoked, that’s awfully faint praise, and it means the movie ends up as a disappointment.