We have reached a tipping point with high concept films, and I’m not happy about it.
There was a time when a high concept was only half the battle. You still had to execute it competently. You still had to deliver on that concept. You still needed a script that worked, and you needed to give a cast something to do. Based on the evidence of this film, that is no longer true. In today’s winky-winky post-modern world, once you’ve got a title, you don’t have to do anything else. Just slap a poster together, throw in some funny people, and it’s Miller time… right?
In a way, “Hot Tub Time Machine” is critic-proof. Anything anyone says as a complaint can be dismissed by simply responding, “Yeah, but the movie is called ‘Hot Tub Time Machine.'” If you complain about the script, you’ll be met with a shrug and the same response. If you complain that the film is technically inept, same thing. No matter what your complaint, the movie is called “Hot Tub Time Machine,” so it doesn’t really matter, right? You get what you pay for. It is what it is.
Only I don’t buy that.
It’s the same problem I have with Kevin Smith these days. I’m not even going to get into the way he hopped a bus to crazy-town this week with his anti-critic rants in public because people (gasp!) didn’t like the anemic “Cop Out.” Why is he surprised? All he seems to do in the build-up to release of his films is repeat variations on “I’m not really a director. I’m not a very good filmmaker. I don’t know how to use my camera. Don’t be mad, because I’m telling you in advance it’s not very good.” It’s like he feels that it excuses him. Here’s an idea… get better at your job. Learn your camera. Study great movies and learn the vocabulary of cinema. Then you don’t have to make excuses beforehand or cry about criticism afterwards. Revolutionary, eh?
It’s been hard for me to write this review. I’ve been chewing on it since last night. The reason is that there is some very good work in the movie. Rob Corddry, for example, deserves to immediately get offered every script in town based on the work he does here. Corddry plays Lou, an unrepentent jerk who maybe tries to kill himself at the start of the film. It’s his movie, honestly, even though there’s an ensemble cast built around him, and it’s phenomenal work. He isn’t a douchebag with a heart of gold… he’s just a douchebag. The fact that he’s likeable at all is a testament to the way Corddry sells the character, the way he presents him as a guy whose overwhelming disappointment with himself, his life, his friends, and his future has turned him deeply sour. It’s actually a much heavier set-up for a character than a film like this can properly handle, and Craig Robinson’s character has the same problem. There’s something very honest about his fears about his wife’s infidelity and the way he handles them, and it’s really out of place in a film this surface and glib.
The film’s a technical mess, and tone-wise, it’s all over the place. It paints such a miserable picture of the lives of Adam (John Cusack), Jacob (Clark Duke), Nick (Craig Robinson) and Corddry’s Lou that it’s hard to turn the film around into pure silliness once the plot, such as it is, kicks in. Adam, Nick, and Lou are all failures, facing down middle age with nothing to show for it, and the friendship that bound them when they were younger has dissipated thanks to all the pressures they face. Following Lou’s “accident,” the four friends decide to take a trip to the ski resort where they spent much of their teenage years, in hopes of rekindling the friendship or, at the very least, enjoying some relief from the misery of their daily lives. What they find is a ski town that’s closed down, abandoned, dying. And the resort they used to love so much is a hellhole filled with cats and rot. Sound funny yet?
There’s a jarring shift when the guys end up partying all night in the hot tub in their room and wake up to find themselves back in 1986. Suddenly the movie starts to play things wacky and ridiculous, with other characters randomly dropping in and out of the film. And several of the jokes land well, with some big laughs along the way. But as a narrative, the film’s a near-complete failure. I don’t need a detailed technical explanation of the time travel in a film called “Hot Tub Time Machine,” but I also don’t need the useless, insulting role that Chevy Chase plays, a magic repairman who speaks in riddles and who contributes absolutely nothing to the film. If the film was better at riffing off the conventions of time travel movies, or smarter about the way it plays with paradox and expectation, then maybe it wouldn’t matter. Or if the film was consistent in the way it handles the characters, then some of the narrative issues wouldn’t be so important. But as it is, it feels like a whole lot of random, and it barely holds together as a movie.
Clark Duke is one of those secret weapons who will absolutely have the right breakout role at some point, a kid with deadly timing and a really sly geek charm, but he’s not given much to do in the movie. He’s Cusack’s nephew, and he’s burdened with most of the mechanics of the movie, running around trying to make sure no one does anything that affects him being born. Craig Robinson is another huge talent, a guy who can take a single line and make it the highlight of an episode of “The Office,” and he fares slightly better than Duke here. He’s got a few good scenes, and he’s deeply committed to his role as a deeply committed married man. Cusack, the biggest name in the film, is pretty much wasted. He’s got a go-nowhere love story with Lizzy Caplan, whose enormous innate appeal is the only reason she registers at all in her do-nothing role. Other than that, he serves no real purpose in the story, and he never really has any comic set pieces that register. Maybe the only supporting cast member to come close to Corddry in terms of impact is Crispin Glover, who only really plays one joke in the film, but it’s a running joke, and it’s well-handled all the way through.
Steve Pink, who directed the film, favors close-ups so extreme that the movie looks like a bad pan-and-scan transfer, and it’s a genuinely ugly film in terms of cinematography. There are obvious signs of heavy editing throughout, and the entire thing feels sort of slapdash, half-hearted. I don’t want to see MGM/UA go down. It’s a company with a great history. But when all of a studio’s hopes and dreams are pinned on a movie as insignificant and tossed off as this, maybe the lion’s got no more roar left in it.
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