It is my deeply held spiritual belief that the film known simply as Hot Tub Time Machine has been poorly ignored in it’s own era. The genius that flows through the script and is personified in the excellent performances will never be extinguished from this Earth as long as there are those brave few for who will champion its noble cause and brilliant effort. Soon, and I am keeping myself healthy in order to see this day, it will be recognized as both a clever satire of genre films and a drama with deep emotional resonance. You did not read this incorrectly, but continue reading and I will tell you why Hot Tub Time Machine might be one of the greatest films of all time.
Most people would tell me that HTTM (yes, I blatantly stole the Back to the Future acronym) is just a stupid stoner comedy. “Mike,” they say, “do you seriously like this movie or are you high?” I responded by giving them an emphatic yes on both accounts. First off, you have to recognize the movie on the merits of its time travel logic. Every time travel movie operates under its own set, each slightly different form the other. HTTM also has its own rules, but its rules are comprised of all the other sets of rules, which are then turned on their head during the movie. For instance, after our heroes Adam, Lou, Nick and Jacob realize they have traveled back in time, they are told that any small change may cause everything to ‘go haywire.’ They talk about the butterfly effect, as well as the awful film of the same name and decide to re-trace their steps and do exactly what they did before. In living their lives over again, they struggle with their knowledge of the future while making the same mistakes as before. As they start to question their motivations and stray from the plan, they find that even their slightest efforts are for nothing as no matter what happens, they get stabbed in the eye, beat up by the ski patrol and sleep with groupies. They learn that was has transpired in their lives was fated to happen and feel like there is nothing they can do to change their lot in life. And they decide to start changing the future.
But as the film moves into the second half and the characters play with the inherent problems of time travel, it backfires on them. When Lou tries to exploit his knowledge of the Super Bowl for financial gain, he loses and it’s revealed that their actions in the past have indeed started to change the future. The characters are stuck in a time when they have already lived, yet they appear to be just as ignorant of the future as they were before. When they try to change what has happened, it happens anyways, but when they try to predict what will happens, it changes. They are ineffectual as time travelers as it seems that no set of rules applies to them. They are lost in both time and life. HTTM poses a simple question, as voiced by one character who asks, “your whole entire life is predetermined to suck no matter what you do?” And the answer is to do something totally amazing right now, tonight. Fate, destiny and the future come back into the hands of our four heroes as they start to live as themselves with knowledge of self and future. So, can you change your destiny? Has fate determined how the events in your life will play out? HTTM says both yes and no. There are certain events in life that will happen and will happen to us, regardless of what an individual may do. But, it is in how the characters react to those events that determines a new path for them that is different from the one before. Adam and Nick pursue something they are passionate about, not what comes easy to them and their lives become better because of it. They have tapped into the power that they always had, but that took the life altering experience of time traveling to bring out in them.
Although the obvious connection to Back to the Future is never spoken of, it is referenced in the character of Jacob, who at times seems to be disappearing from existence. The longer they stay in the past and continue to unwittingly change the future, the possibility of Jacob not being born becomes more likely, even though Lou doesn’t care. Our heroes talk about the cyclical time travel rules of The Terminator and take their first course of action by doing the same things over again, Groundhog Day-style. That cyclical nature of time travel is illustrated by Crispin Glover’s bellhop character, whom we know we befall a tragic accident at some point in the film. When he finally succumbs to tragedy, it is BECAUSE the four have travelled back in time, thus causing the accident to happen. While they may have accidentally changed the future, their presence in the past was not only needed, but also does make for a happy ending for everyone, even Crispin Glover. Lou eventually decides to stay in the past and fix his mistakes in order to make a better life for himself and his friends. Which basically say that if even an idiot like Lou can get his shit together, then anybody else with half a brain can and you don’t need to go back into time to do so.
Additionally, the Groundhog Day reference is another easy connection to make as many people have put forth the theory that when Lou attempts suicide in the beginning of the film, he succeeds and the ski weekend is a purgatory with each character representing a different aspect of his personality. That idea has a lot of holes in it, but it speaks to the deeper meaning of the movie that some might be dismissive of. I do not think that you might take seriously the themes of the film if they did not carry the weighty, dramatic bits as well and of course, that falls to one of my favorite actors, John Cusack. In the first five minutes of the movie, as Adam goes through a bad break up, the ideas of the film are established in a conversation with Clark Duke’s character as they talk about making life choices and dealing with the consequences. When Jacob asks Adam what he did to make his girlfriend leave, Adam thinks for a moment and says quietly, “I didn’t do anything,” establishing his motives through the movie. A scene like that could stop a movie cold, but Cusack is gifted both dramatically and comedically and it at his best when he firing off form both cannons. It always gives me pause when I watch it and reflect on my life, thinking to myself whether I’m doing anything and about paying for my life’s choices. I appreciate a film that can do that to me.
But the movie is funny as hell. Originally tagged as a Hangover with time travel, Rob Corddry is the obvious stand out with the best lines, “Hey, John Lennon gets shot! Wait, that already happen?” and making the most of his time on screen. Nods to Eighties movies like Sixteen Candles, Red Dawn, Karate Kid, Better off Dead (wink) and shows like SNL, Miami Vice and Alf can oddly seem dated, but their is a geniuine affection for the decade instead of a sneering, mean spirited mocking of it that seems pervasive in a lot of cheap entertainment today. I find Hot Tub Time Machine to be much more than that and I hope maybe others will as well. As they say in the film, sometimes the universe surprises us.