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Just Look Away: Hot Tub Time Machine

Do I really gotta be the asshole who says we got in this thing and went back in time?

This 2010 raunchy comedy has a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where only 57% of the audience report liking it.

Why Bother?
I write Stargate fan fiction, so I think I know what I’m talking about right now.

Here’s how you sell this movie to a studio: Three friends, played by John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson, go back to their youth in a time machine built out of a hot tub. Get Chevy Chase to play a crazy mystic repairman who knows all about the time machine, and it’s a license to print money.


Remember Better Off Dead? Cusack made that in the eighties (1985), and he skied in that movie. Our target, nostalgia, audience will totally get it.

Seriously – get Steve Pink, John Cusack’s buddy IRL, to direct it. He directed Accepted, and that was an underground, sleeper hit.

He’s due.

Plus, you know, once we put that package together, everyone will want to be in it. We’ll get some eighties icons begging us to be in it. They’ll pay us to be in it. I bet we can get William Zabka, from The Karate Kid (1984), easy. Maybe even Crispin Glover.

If that doesn’t make you want to see it, this is not the movie for you. If you’re still intrigued, I’ve got some more for you after the break.

I watched it

It’s called male bonding okay. Haven’t you even seen ‘Wild Hogs’?

Lou tries to commit suicide, although he swears it’s an accident. Lou is an asshole. He was an asshole twenty-five years ago, and he hasn’t grown up any. Adam’s girlfriend has left him, and his ex-wife has a new man. Nick used to be a singer, and now he’s a…well, it’s hard to describe. He works in a dog health clinic, I guess you’d call it.

The point is, their lives didn’t live up to expectations. After Lou’s suicide attempt/accident, the three man-children decide to go to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where they had some of the best weekends of their young lives. The place has fallen on hard times.

After an epic night of drinking the hot tub outside their room, they find themselves back in 1986, with a chance to revisit their mistakes, and to change their lives.

The Disappointments

You’re better than him. Maybe not by a lot, but a little. You’re the patron saint of the totally f****d. You’re completely toxic. There’s nothing you can’t kill. You’re the f***ing Violater! You can do this! You can get us out of here! You can be the hero!

Now, here’s how you screw up the idea:

  • Throw in a kid who was born in 1986 (played by Clark Duke), so he can provide commentary and a point of view. He can meet his mom when she was young, He can be Adam’s nephew, and not know who his biological father is until this wacky adventure.
  • Go back to the eighties. I lived through the eighties, and I don’t get how the nostalgia factor was supposed to work. Of your stars, only John Cusack had a big career in that decade. If you’re trying to get his eighties audience into the theater, you shouldn’t pander so much to younger audiences. If you’re trying to get younger audiences into the theater, shouldn’t you have picked someone more relevant to them?
  • Rather than try to do or say anything original, just keep referring to time travel movies.
  • Have one of the characters try betting on sports events for which he already knows the outcome – because, you know, that never happens in time travel movies, and when it does, it always works out well.
  • Make one of the three guys into a raging asshole whose job it is to offend the other characters, and the audience, as often as possible. Okay, that’s totally in Corddry’s wheelhouse, granted, but if he’s not even vaguely likeable then you’re taking a risk.
  • Cast the love interests with actors so young in comparison to the stars that you feel skeevy just watching it.
  • Film racier scenes than were in comedies back in the eighties.
  • Despite the references to time machine movies, make these guys unconscious of the opportunity to improve their lives. Let thesm stumble around trying to stick to the original timeline with constant references to The Butterfly Effect – until at least 45 minutes into the film.
  • Throw in a series of gruesome, visual, gags about how a minor character might or might not lose his arm.
  • While you’re at it, have a scene where a grown man curses out a 9-year-old girl, describing her future infidelity in graphic detail.

Getting Meta

There will be spoilers here.

All stories are about a character in a context with a conflict. “Plot” is the process by which the character attempts to resolve the conflict. In Western tradition, that character tries three times to resolve the conflict. The first two times he fails, but learns something that he needs to triumph. The climactic moment of the plot is when the protagonist overcomes his greatest fear to achieve his greatest desire.

Everything else is decoration.

When you have multiple characters, each one needs his or her own “arc.”

Adam believes that he’s screwed up romantically. His greatest desire is to find “the Great White Buffalo,” and marry her.

Lou believes that his friends abandoned him. His greatest desire is for his friends to prove their loyalty.

Nick wants to be a musical success, and he wants to deal with his wife cheating on him.

Jacob embodies the group desire: To get back to their regular time.

Adam winds up stumbling through the plot, tagging along with his friends, and randomly bouncing off events from his youth. He meets April, who is a bit of a walking cliché in that she’s the magical girl who makes him realize that if life is preordained, then his choices don’t matter and he can do anything he wants. Adam winds up with April. He doesn’t really follow the pattern, because it’s not clear what his greatest fear is. He never has to face being alone for the rest of his life, for example, and when he makes it back to his present, April’s just waiting for him. And? How does that change his life for the better? We don’t know. Apparently wives aren’t significant individuals who contribute to our lives, they’re just possessions that make husbands feel good.

Lou’s friends never prove their loyalty to him. He never learns that his behavior and personality alienate the people who want to love him. He marries the girl he impregnated in 1986, and somehow Jacob loves him now. It’s never clear how discovering that he’s a father changes things for him, or why that would give his life new meaning and perspective. It’s not just off-formula, it’s insulting and offensive. It’s not funny that the most unpleasant character in the movie achieves the greatest personal and professional successes by accident.

Nick actually does face his greatest fear – he confronts his wife about her infidelity.

Not only with an obscene phone call in 1986, but when he returns to his present. That’s the most satisfying of the character arcs. However, he also has to face a fear to achieve professional success, and he doesn’t. Nick pirates other people’s creations to launch his musical career (I wonder if he ever made it up to the Black Eyed Peas, for example). So he comes off as kind of a jerk. They should have let him be the guy who had professional success in the present, but it was losing its meaning to him because of his romantic conflict. Then, when he went back in time, he could focus on one story arc.

When you have a group arc, you don’t need a character to embody it.

If you do have a character like Jacob, you don’t need to give him a “mystery” arc about learning something in his past that’s significant to his life in the present (the identity of his father). Instead, the characters who make up the group must overcome their greatest fears in order to achieve the group goal. Alternately, what they each learn as individuals (or how they grow and change as individuals) should come together at the climactic moment so they can overcome the group’s biggest fear – an impossible obstacle, a group antagonist, or whatever. Hot Tub Time Machine doesn’t bother with any of that.

It may seem like I’m advocating for formula here, but I’m not. I’m trying to explain that audiences, consciously or not, have expectations, what those expectations are, and how they apply to this particular film. “Art” comes in how smoothly you handle the expectations, how you defy them and still deliver a satisfying story, and the originality and intelligence of your characters, context, and conflict.

The Final Verdict

It’s not male bonding. It’s childish, irresponsible, stupidity. Seriously – there was no way this movie was going to be the next Hangover. Just Look Away.

Come at me, bro

What’s your favorite eighties comedy?

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