Hot Tub Time Machine is the definitive comedy of the past decade. Hmm, maybe ‘definitive’ is a bit generous. I’m not claiming that it’s the best or even the funniest comedy of the past ten years. But it is the logical conclusion of an important chapter in comedy history. Handily, these chapters can be divided up between the decades. If the 1980s were all about John Hughes-esque teen comedies and the 1990s were all about The Farrelly Brothers’ much imitated brand of gross-out humour, then surely the 2000s belonged to the legion of awkward Judd Apatow acolytes (Rogen, Hill, Carell et al).
To call this The Age of Apatow is to essentially call it the Era of the Manchild. Look at The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall or even non-Apatow affiliated comedy hits such as The Hangover, Up in the Air and (500) Days of Summer. Each one features men (but really, boys) on the cusp of the next stage of their life, desperately clinging to days gone by. Hot Tub Time Machine director Steve Pink is hardly ‘the next Apatow’, but the lineage of his characters isn’t hard to trace. The guys in his film are too defeated and depressed to even entertain the possibility of ‘a next stage’. The only thing keeping them from suicide is a magical hot tub that can send them back through time to their teenage years, offering them the opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives. An actual time machine that can send nostalgic characters back to their heyday? Now we’re getting to that “logical conclusion” business I brought up earlier.
So who are the four time travelers that take this journey? The first is played by John Cusack. I won’t mention his character’s name, because he is essentially playing “John Cusack” – each and every one of his self-involved, sardonic and (of course) heartbroken protagonists. Imagine if his characters from High Fidelity, Say Anything or even Better Off Dead were dumped (once again). Except now, Cusack isn’t young enough to jump back on his feet and get back in the game. Now, he’s done. He doesn’t even care. He just wishes he could go back to that great time in 1986 when he was dating a vivacious teenager and spent his nights getting drunk and stoned with his mates.
Cusack has since fallen out of favour with his former best friends. They include Nick (the brilliant Craig Robinson), a failed singer who has such low self-esteem he has agreed to take the last name of his cheating wife. Then there is Lou (the slimy Rob Cordry), an over-the-hill party boy who “accidentally” attempts suicide. The three are united by Lou’s incident, and they agree to an impromptu trip to the Kodiak Valley Ski Resort where they shared the time of their life back in the mid-80s. They are joined on the trip by Cusack’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke – finally getting his due on the big screen). Eventually, the four of them get drunk and unwittingly jump into a magical hot tub, and party like its 1986 all over again.
The mechanics of the time traveling hot tub are not important (but if you really want to know, it has something to do with a Russian energy drink and whatever causes a Stargate). Neither are the intricacies of how the quartet blends in amongst all the leg-warmer wearing teenagers. What is important is that there is a film called ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’. The title is wonderfully dumb – ingeniously self-aware whilst also being easy enough to remember for any viewers who thought The Hangover was an instructional documentary. I’m not going to describe what happens once the characters head back to 1986 (no, not even the fantastic running joke that centers on Crispin Glover’s one-armed bellman). Needless to say, much alcohol and drugs are consumed, leading to situations of a sexually explicit nature. This will be every 15 year olds favourite movie for at least the next 12 months, or the next 12 minutes (attention spans are getting shorter and shorter these days).
Hot Tub Time Machine is consistently funny; occasionally hilarious. Of course, if you’re not already partial to jokes about bodily fluids, this is not going to be the film that converts you. But there are two specific elements that make Hot Tub Time Machine special, and yes, potentially the ‘definitive’ comedy of the past decade. The first element: Nostalgia. Having been born two years after the film takes place, I can’t claim to identify with the joy of being a teenager in 1986. But even through these broadly drawn character sketches, I felt their longing for days past (as Don Draper says, nostalgia is “pain from an old wound). The second element: Joy. When their moping subsides, these characters revel in their impossible situation, soaking in all the fantastical wonder of being 19 again. Hot Tub Time Machine is rough around the edges (as mentioned, characterisations are broad and the film isn’t very pretty). But, it offers us closure on a decade of great comedy – from the very silly Anchorman to the deathly serious Funny People – in which childish men are forced to grow the hell up.