What this essay is about: John Cusack now, John Cusack in the 80s, golden years remembered, golden years misremembered interspersed with vintage pictures of my parents.
Spoiler Alert: While this “film review” does contain Hot Tub Time Machine spoilers, curiously enough, it may also ruin the end of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat’s Cradle for anyone who hasn’t read it.
My Dad’s Top Five Favourite Movies of All Time:
2. Top Gun
3. The Bourne Identity
4. Independence Day
5. Wall Street
My Top Five Favourite John Cusack Roles So Far:
1. High Fidelity: Broken Hearted Record Store Geek
2. Say Anything: Romantically Ambitious Kick Boxer
3. Bullets Over Broadway: Plays the “Woody Allen” Character, a Mediocre Depression era Playwright.
4. Better Off Dead: Slapstick Suicidal Broken Hearted High School Student
5. 2012: Divorced Unsuccessful Science Fiction Author Trying to Save his Family
In the men’s bathroom on the ground floor of the A&A building at King’s College in Halifax, located between the cafeteria and the campus bar, someone has written “these are the best years of your life boys, enjoy it while lasts” above the urinal. Someone else, presumably a student, has written in response to this, “fuck you, buddy.” Ah the precociousness of youth.
You live your life in the present, riding the crest of each moment, but there’s always the past biting at your heels, right up until you die. I’ve been told that time and space are actually the same thing, however, if this is the case, I don’t understand why you don’t travel back in time when you walk backwards. Time travel movies always talk about being trapped in the past, but how come no one ever complains about being trapped in the present? There’s no way to verify the past. It’s only as good as we remember it, and yet so often the past is misremembered, forgotten or intentionally misrepresented. The whole idea of “glory days” or “those golden years,” actively designating and mythologizing a specific time in your life as such, just seems so silly and depressing.
Let’s get one thing straight, right here, right now: there is no going back in time. I don’t care how much fun it is to watch Michael J. Fox, Jean Claude Van Damme, a pack of thieving midgets (thank you Terry Gilliam) or Keanu Reeves and the dude that played Bill mess around with the past, you simply can’t do it. Scientists may soon figure out how to travel through time; hell, the bastards may have it figured out already, but if time travel did exist, I promise that you would not be allowed to use it to fix things with your boyfriend, find out where you left your keys or bet on sports - and I know that is what most would want to do.
Now, I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s fun here, or rain on your proverbial parade, I’m just trying to help. The truth of the matter is that there are many instances in my life where I wish I could travel back in time. I wonder about the terms and conditions; would I give my younger self advice and return to an idyllic future? Or would I pick a point to skip back to and live it out from there with knowledge of my alternate future? The happy compromise, I always think, would be to skip back to a specific point with a written set of advice, but no memory of my alternate future. Obsessing over the past is unarguably a bad habit, but often our minds get stuck on things, pulling us backwards when we should be moving forwards.
There are certain movies I know right away that I will be seeing with my Dad. Recent examples include Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes and 2012. While I act as though I’m lowering my standards and catering to my dad’s tastes, more often than not it’s actually me that suggests we should go see one of these movies. The truth is, even the greatest cynic or art house savant, on some level, desires that base satisfaction of a by-the-numbers Hollywood spectacle: the popcorn and soda, the superhero origin story, the massive waves crashing over North American cities, the outright forgetting of oneself, the whole deal. I am no great cynic, nor am I an art house savant, and I’m certainly no exception.
When I found out that there existed a film called Hot Tub Time Machine I knew right away that I had to see it with my dad. Usually my dad is a pretty easy sell, but in this instance, even he was skeptical, “Hot Tub Time Machine?” he said, “I dunno, sounds kind of stupid.” Fair enough, it does sound pretty stupid, so I played to his vanity: “Hey Dad, weren’t you the on-set consultant? I mean, for the hot tub?” You see, my Dad is a hot tub enthusiast, we had a hot tub installed in the backyard when I was twelve years old and ever since then hot tubbing and hot tub maintenance has been a big part of his life (my life too for that matter). I began to see the titular Hot Tub Time Machine as this weird nexus of significant themes in my life:
- John Cusack: a ubiquitous but widely overlooked actor who has been a point of fascination for me in recent months. Often typecast as the sensitive, intellectual, broken hearted everyman.
- A Hot Tub: A symbol of modern bourgeois luxury and preferred method of relaxation for myself and my primary Hollywood-style movie-going companion (Dad).
- A Time Machine: A symbol of nostalgia, of wanting to live in the past, to rectify the misdeeds and missteps of oneself or mankind and forge a better future.
In the weeks approaching the release of Hot Tub Time Machine, I overhyped it, billing it as probably the greatest mainstream comedy since Mallrats. On the day of its the release (March 26) I was on time for once to meet my dad at Rainbow Cinemas on Front Street. The film opens with John Cusack as the same broken hearted depressed wreck of a loser we’ve become accustomed to seeing him play. There is a hilarious scene involving Rob Corddry boozing and nearly killing himself by incorporating the gas pedal of his car into an air drumming routine, then we are at a decrepit ski lodge. There’s a borderline gay hot tub party, a dancing bear, some Russian Red Bull and then… Boom! Time travel. They end up back in 80s, reliving the greatest weekend of their lives.
Hot Tub Time Machine is not a very good movie. Not even by the standards that I was willing to judge it. I think Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail says it best in his two star review: “Funnier than any movie called Hot Tub Time Machine has a right to be. And how funny is that? Not very, but a little, occasionally – just enough.” The problem is, Rick and I were coming at this thing from different angles. Rick Groen thought the title of Hot Tub Time Machine negated the possibility of humour, while I thought it ensured hilarity.
The main problem I have with the film is that the gags are too scattered. In a good time travel movie all the threads of the plot should intertwine neatly, as they do in Back to the Future. I wanted all the characters to diverge on individual missions and then collide in a grand comical finale. I wanted the kind of perfect comical cinematic climax that can be seen in Animal House or Mallrats. But maybe that’s asking too much.
It was with some mild disappointment that I left the theatre. I agreed with Rick Groen that the movie was “just funny enough.” Incidentally, my Dad thought that it was a really good movie, and was in high spirits afterward. I didn’t tell him what I really thought. We drove up to Teronni at Yonge and St. Clair afterward where we habitually sit at the bar, drink beer and eat pasta. During these father-son outings, when we are drinking at the bar, I usually get some small dose of my dad reminiscing about the past.
My Dad went to university for engineering at Waterloo. He recently described to me what it was like working in management at a pro-union factory in Quebec in the seventies. People sold dope in the bathrooms, there were women who hung around the factory that would sleep with workers for money. There was a bar across the street that cashed the workers paychecks when they went there to drink after work. It all sounded so impossibly perfect to me, like a different world that I wanted to visit for a day.
My dad also worked in food processing for a while. He was apparently part of the team that ran tests on Pop Rocks when it was a new product, to prepare it for public consumption in Canada. Him and his colleagues used to produce extra large Pop Rocks that they would swallow whole, gradually making bigger and bigger rocks in some delirious macho candy-themed game of chicken. This was at a time, I’ve been made to understand, when airplanes had smoking sections and people drank between ten and thirty cups of coffee a day. These are the fragments of the past I’ve assembled from my father’s verbal reminiscing.
When I was 21 I took a trip with my college roommates. I met them in St. John’s Newfoundland a few days before we were due in Halifax for our graduation ceremony. We walked the path that led up Signal Hill, passing brightly coloured houses intermittently along the way. From the top of Signal Hill, a gigantic, barren rock jutting out on the ocean, you can look out at the Atlantic and watch the water crashing violently and swirling into the harbour. We stayed at a hostel, we drank too much, I drank too much and almost got my nose broken by a bouncer at a strip club (one of my roommates saved the day with his powerful sophistry). I ran wild down George Street (St. John’s famous pub crawl strip) pretending that my arm was a rocket that I was attached to. Rocket Arm was a character that often came out when I’d had a lot to drink. I believe my roommates had to forcibly restrain me.
In Halifax, a few nights of celebration followed. There was a lot of back slapping, reminiscing, proud parents footing the bill for expensive bottles of wine, extravagant seafood dinners, dancing, crying, hugging, the works. I almost missed the graduation ceremony because I was hung over, drinking coffee near campus and talking to college girls about my thesis. At the ceremony, I dawned the traditional gown and walked in the procession to my designated seat. As our alumni speaker droned on about how climate change was the greatest challenge that our generation would face (this was back when people were worried about that Global Warming thing) I finished reading the copy of Kurt Voneggut’s Cat’s Cradle that I had propped up in my lap. That’s the one that ends with the dreaded Ice-9 substance dropping onto the ocean’s surface, causing the earth to freeze over in its entirety. I had grown my hair long and my face was covered with months of focused facial growth. I had come to graduation like this on purpose as an homage to the classic liberal arts undergrad in all his shagginess. In the photograph, which has a bit of a dull, dusty haze to it, it looks look like I am somebody’s father, graduating in the 1970s, frozen in time. If I had a Hot Tub Time Machine, this is where it would take me, but perhaps 25 is too early an age to be seriously reminiscing about one’s early 20s.
If you spend too much time looking back, then you aren’t as adept at seeing potential paths ahead. There’s a hilarious moment in Mallrats, where Brodie Bruce is walking backwards and lecturing his brokenhearted friend, “you face forward, or you face the possibility of shock and damage,” he says, as he turns around and gets clocked in the face with a metal beam. Say what you want about Kevin Smith, there’s a poetic truth to this moment. We’ve got a pretty good deal as humans in the world, we get to make all kinds of decisions everyday that change our lives and the lives of those around us drastically, why dwell on the past:
- anything can happen
- this is exciting
- try not to think about the past too much
- the future is this crazy thing.
In 1984 John Cusack played a bit role in a little movie called Sixteen Candles. In the following years he would become a unique figure in the teen heartthrob circuit, known to moviegoers as that somber faced boy that constantly faced rejection and pursued perfection. In the year 2000 John Cusack starred in a film called High Fidelity: a retrospective look at a man who had been simply rained on and broken up with for two straight decades; Lloyd Dobbler, all grown up. In 1984, the year that Sixteen Candles came out, I was conceived.
I was also born in 1984, but I say conceived because it holds a different significance; once conception occurs, there’s a pretty good chance of birth, and thus existence, my existence. Try something, just for a second: picture your parents on the night that they met, it's kind of scary. My mom has told me on several occasions that the night she met my father, at a bar, in Montreal, my dad spent the entire night chatting up my mom’s friend, then, at the last moment, as my mom is leaving the bar, my dad goes after her and asks for her phone number. Every time I hear this story I am panic-stricken, I start sweating, suddenly my existence is in jeopardy, “what happens” I blurt out, then, holding out my hands, touching my face, “oh… right.” When they got married she was 27 and he was 26, just one year older than me.
In 1985, Crispin Glover played a supporting role in a little movie called Back to the Future. In the film, Glover plays George McFly, Marty’s father, a successful science fiction novelist. But when Marty accidentally travels back in time, he compromises his parents’ relationship, his own existence and his dad’s career as a sci-fi novelist. HTTM and Back to the Future have a least two things in common, first they both rely on the “I need to make sure my parents do it so I can get born” motif, and they both feature Crispin Glover. To be honest, and I really hate to say this, but Cusack is kind of useless in HTTM. He’s the boring straight man and his character’s plot never goes anywhere. Cusack already had a sweet eighties throw back role in High Fidelity when he reminisced about being a sensitive dude in the eighties rather than actually returning to the eighties. But where Cusack fails as the sad old dude, Glover shines as the one-armed bell hop/ice sculptor; this really is his sweet eighties/time travel throwback movie and he absolutely kills it.
The funniest jokes in HTTM revolve around Rob Cordrry’s character Lou, the best of which involves Lou banging Cusack’s nephew Jacob into existence (via Cusack’s sister), as Jacob wanes in and out of being. The second funniest involves Lou getting beat up by a bunch of ski patrol dudes in a fight where his friends bailed on him the first time around. Cusack and Craig Robinson (the token black guy) were shitty friends who made mistakes in the eighties and they’re still shitty friends prone to making mistakes now. My favourite scene in the movie isn’t even funny, it’s actually kind of sad. Corrdry’s pounding a bottle of Johnny Walker Red at Chimney Corner, the top of some big cabin in the ski resort village, his face all beaten and bruised. Robinson and Cusack show up to apologize for missing the fight but it's too late, he tears them apart for being shitty friends, falls off the roof, and they all almost tumble off and break their crazy necks except that Crispin Glover appears out of no where at the last second and saves their worthless lives.
I like this scene so much because it shows the deepest flaws of all the characters. In the end, everything gets cleaned up. They get the time machine working, Corrdry stays in the past, but meets them in the future where everything is awesome and Crispin Glover has two arms. The almost incomprehensible Hollywood wrap up is just awful; something messy and awful would have been much better.
Suspension of disbelief in the name of fiction aside, let’s be realistic here for a second. If you actually went back in time, it would probably fuck shit up way beyond you not being born, and secondly, even if you thought you’d be able to fix something in your life, you’d probably screw up something else in a bold new incalculable way. Either that or you just flat out wouldn’t be happy with what you thought you wanted. Because that’s how life is, it kind of sucks… but it’s also awesome. I found the scene at Chimney Corner satisfying because the characters’ disappointment with their lives reflected my disappointment with the film; I think all of our expectations were too high. If you have a set idea of what you want your life to look like, you’re pretty much doomed to puzzle over how things could have been instead of coping with the bad and working towards the good. Also, if you get it into your head that Hot Tub Time Machine might be a really funny and awesome movie to go see you’re shit out of luck.