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Hot Tub Time Machine (2009) by Josh Heald and Jarrad Paul, Andrew Mogel & Steve Pink

Note: The script reviewed credits different writers than those credited in the finished film.

Let’s talk for a minute about bodily fluids. They aren’t funny. In movies, they exist to provide the shock value. The audience laughs not because of a funny sight gag, but because the sight of shit chunks in a motion picture they have paid money to see has startled them. There’s a word for that: cheap. Similarly cheap are bodily functions. Now, as a male, I have to admit the dark truth we men try to hide from the fairer sex unless we’re drunk enough or generally obnoxious enough: farts are hilarious. Nothing is funnier than the fart smell, the moments anticipating the smell, and sharing the horror of the stench itself. Nothing. In a movie, though, it’s still cheap. If it’s the only way the writers can get a laugh, they’re in trouble.

That’s the pathetic thing about Hot Tub Time Machine: it doesn’t need those jokes, but the movie has them anyway. It’s as if somebody said, “Well, we’re gonna get an R rating, anyway, so we might as well graphically feature every possible human excretion and add some fart sound effects because comedy legend Chevy Chase just isn’t funny enough.”

Before I get ahead of myself, let me say this: I liked the movie. It’s a testament to the script itself, the cast, and director Steve Pink that the movie works despite the occasional super-cheap gag. In many ways, I think I actually prefer it to the script. I like the script, but the ending felt too happy and unearned. Somehow, without many significant changes (aside from the addition of shit/piss/vomit/semen/fart jokes) to the overall story, Pink and his cast made it feel appropriate. That’s impressive.

The screenplay’s story doesn’t deviate much from the film: Adam, Lou, and Nick (played in the film by, respectively, John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson) are best friends who have drifted apart over the past 25 years. Lou’s attempted suicide (“Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe plays on his car stereo, so he listens to it until the end, even though his running car is in his closed garage) brings the trio back together. Adam and Nick vow to take Lou’s mind off his many failures by bringing him back to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where they spent some great times in the ’80s. Adam brings along Jacob (Clark Duke), his 23-year-old nephew, because he thinks Jacob needs to get out of the house and away from his video games. This does not make Lou happy.

Kodiak Valley has changed since the mid-’80s. What was once a thriving, fun-filled resort community has turned into a depressed town full of shuttered storefronts. The grungy resort is dilapidated and populated primarily by elderly people waiting to die. A surly, one-armed bellhop (hilariously portrayed by Crispin Glover in the film) just adds to the creepy, tragic atmosphere. Undaunted, the group decides to get in their room’s hot tub and get hammered on some of the imported, outdated Soviet beer Lou brought. When it gets spilled on the electronics, the hot tub becomes a time machine, sending the group back to 1986.

This, naturally, leads to the core of the story. After their hilariously horrified realization that they’ve gone back in time, the group discusses the various complexities of time travel, primarily informed by movies on the subject. Jacob convinces them that they must relive their lives exactly as they did in 1986 to prevent a butterfly effect. Naturally, things go awry almost immediately, especially when Adam realizes this is the weekend he broke up with his teenage girlfriend, Jennie (Lyndsy Fonseca), which he considers the worst mistake of his life. He leads the rebellion against Jacob’s nagging insistence that they don’t stray from the original timeline.

I don’t want to step up to the pulpit for my half-assed brand of Comedy Theory, but I will say this: the best comedies are about something. Pure laughs are great, but it always works better if some semblance of meaning exists beneath the surface. That’s part of the reason Hot Tub Time Machine makes such an effective script. They could have lazily relied on ’80s joke after ’80s joke, but the script focuses more on the tragic undercurrent of failure. Adam, Nick, and especially Lou are all deeply unhappy about the way their lives have turned out, and that they’ve drifted apart. They’ve even grown to hate the ’80s, even though they simultaneously consider it the best time of their lives. It’s a satisfying, deceptively complex midlife crisis metaphor masquerading as homage to the dumb teen-sex comedies of the ’80s.

One consistent problem in both the script and the movie is the character of Jacob. His presence serves as little more than an ironically detached Greek chorus, commenting on the other characters, the storyline, and the setting without adding much to it himself. It would have been nice if the writers had taken the time to either integrate him more fully into the story or just given him a more interesting character than the stereotypical nerdy hermit. I understand why he’s in the script—the movie wants to have its cake and eat it, too, by appealing to a more youthful audience who may not appreciate the sadness of the older characters’ stories—but that doesn’t mean it works. Unlike Rob Corddry—who takes another fairly stereotypical character and breathes surprising life and nuance into him—Clark Duke isn’t up to the challenge of making Jacob more interesting than the way he reads on the page. Which is to say, not very.

On the other hand, Pink addresses and corrects a number of the script’s flaws as director. The second act of the script lags quite a bit, a consequence of redundant scenes (designed to give each character roughly equal time, without taking the time to think of more things for them to do) and an unneeded subplot involving ski-patrol members Blaine (Sebastian Stan) and Chaz (Charlie McDermott) suspecting Lou of being a commie spy. The finished film excises a number of the redundant scenes altogether. What remains, Pink directs with a high energy level that keeps the pace keyed up.

Based on its title, Hot Tub Time Machine might easily be mistaken for a cheesy, mindless comedy. It’s much more than that, though. It’s a terrific script that made an even better movie. I just wish it didn’t have all bodily fluids.

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