Saturday, April 17, 2010

Darkness muddies the water


It's difficult to know if a filmmmaker or screenwriter intends for their comedies to be dark and depressing, but "Hot Tub Time Machine" is the latest such film to cause one to ponder whether this question.
The premise is amusing enough since sending three friends back in time to the 1980s provides the opportunity to present the always entertaining '80s fashions and pop culture sensations: Miami Vice!, Alf!, hair bands! For a while once the friends and Adam's nephew are discovering when they are, there are some funny jokes, but the film quickly descends into an unpleasant atmosphere.
To begin with, the drug use of the characters, Adam in particular, is played for laughs, but is indeed rather unsettling. In the '80s they evidently are quite the heads and upon discovering Adam's briefcase full of enough narcotics to fund a small war, they dig in. Later when Cusack is wallowing in self pity, his nephew discovers him drunk, taking long drags from a bong, eating mushrooms and Cusack almost snorts cocaine, but his nephew intervenes.
In addition to the rampant drug use, there is seemingly more alcohol in this movie than at Oktoberfest. It would be all right if the drinking were just part of a rowdy guys' weekend, but it goes beyond that and instead the boozing is so heavy, constand and casual, it becomes distracting and sad. For example, after Lou (Rob Corddry) is identified as an alcoholic, he continues to drink excessively and in the presence of his friends, who do nothing to stop him and join in. What kind of friends are these?
What helped make "The Hangover" such a fun movie, besides its hilarious screenplay, was a central cast of characters who were all likeable. The characters in "Hot Tub" aren't villains, but they don't seem like the type of guys who would be fun to spend time with. The characters' dilemmas are interesting because they are all situations people could see themselves in ... except the storyline involving the nephew, which mirrors "Back to the Future." The scenes involving reflections on where or when the characters' lives took a wrong turn and whether they can use their time in the past to improve them are among the movie's best.
None of the men are happy in terms of their romantic lives (if they have one) and Adam, who is jilted by his lover at the start of the film, is given the chance to do things right by meeting a cute journalist named April ("Party Down's" Lizzy Caplan) while trying to retrace his steps in 1986. He first resists her becase hi is afraid of affecting the future by altering the past, but eventually he decides it could be a good idea to spend some time with her. This coupling, unfortunately is trite because she is the same fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants female to his overly cautious, play-it-safe male featured in countless films ("Along Came Polly," "A Guy Thing," "Yes Man"), but her character does spark a longing for the better days of journalism. She is at the ski resort in 1986 covering a concert for "Spin" 'magazine and during a scene in which the two share a deep conversation, a present-day journalist's mind is inclined to wander and long for a time in which reporters had a world of possibility ahead of them and more value was put on a story about a concert by an actual journalist than some juvenile Tweet or blog by someone who thinks "Belle du Jour" is the soup of the day. It would be wonderful for the reporters of today who were laid off to be able to jump into time machines of their own and travel to a time when their talents and skills are appreciated and revered, rather than viewed as antiquated and quaint. This is a good idea for a spinoff featuring the journalist. Perhaps it could be called "Laptop Time Machine" and journalists could be sucked into the days of journalistic greatness via their monitors. There are seeds of a sweet romantic story between Adam and April, but the film doesn't let it materialize and soon returns to its darker and more depressing nature. The darkest aspect of the movie is a repeated attempt to elicit laughter at the expense of a character who the audience and characters know loses an arm between 1986 and the present. Lou shows a sociopathic side as he eagerly watches the man escape a series of near-accidents involving a chainsaw and an elevator door and is disappointed when he maintains his limb. For anyone who thinks it's fun to watch someone lose an arm, he eventually has it ripped off by a passing snowplow and picks it up with his remaining arm as blood spurts from the shoulder and Lou cheers with excitement. Once the film concludes in present day, the arm is reattached but the discomfort from watching something concocted by such callous filmmakers remains.