Even after the ball dropped on December 31, 1989, the ‘80s never really ended. The decade lay dormant for a few years after Nirvana beat all the hair metal guys at their own game, but once it returned, it never went away. The ‘80s have broken the unofficial rule of 20-year nostalgia cycles, with movies like Top Gun: Maverick and shows like Cobra Kai trading strongly on memories of mullets, Sixteen Candles, and morning in America.
But not everybody has gotten on board. In 2010, cult rock group The Vaselines, who released their first album in 1989, finally released a second one which included the song “I Hate The Eighties,” titled after the VH1 series that helped bring the decade back to the popular imagination. “What do you know? You weren't there / It wasn't all / Duran-Duran, Duran-Duran,” The Vaselines tell their presumably younger listeners. “You want the truth? Well, this is it / I hate the '80s /'Cause the '80s were shit!”
A similar sentiment runs through Steve Pink’s movie from the same year, Hot Tub Time Machine. John Cusak, who first made his name in the decade with hits like Sixteen Candles and Stand By Me, complains in Hot Tub that in the ‘80s, “we had like Reagan and AIDS.”
Hot Tub Time Machine is the story of three mostly unpleasant middle-aged men and one twentysomething (Clark Duke) who get drunk in a hot tub at a ski lodge and end up in 1986. The trio are all living dull and painful lives in the present. Adam (Cusak) just got dumped. Nick (Craig Robinson) is stuck in a dead-end dog-cleaning job with a wife who cheated on him. And Lou (Rob Corddry), also known as “Violator,” is doing the worst of all after ending up in the hospital for what he swears wasn’t a suicide attempt.
The movie doesn’t try to sanitize how unpleasant these guys are. Hot Tub makes clear they’ve made their own choices. Lou is especially cruel and condescending to the twentysomething Jacob (Duke), who wastes his life away serving time in a Second Life prison.
“I've had a lot of girlfriends. Hot ones,” Jacob tells Lou, who retorts, “You have had lots of boyfriends. Gay ones.”
There are lots of gay jokes in Hot Tub Time Machine. (There’s perhaps no greater fear these guys have than performing oral sex with a man, which Lou and Nick are eventually pressured to do at gunpoint until the latter passes out in fear.) Built into the premise of the era’s “boy’s trip” movies, which kicked off with the previous year’s The Hangover, is that these wildly different men all truly do care for each other. But to make sure the movie doesn’t confuse the viewer, it repeatedly hammers home how not gay they are at the same time.
Gay jokes aside, the guys meet a mystical repairman (Chevy Chase) who warns them not to change anything in their new past. They agree, which means they have to repeat the weekend when everything started to go wrong. Adam broke up with his smokeshow girlfriend for reasons he can’t even remember and got stabbed with a fork, Lou got his ass kicked by lodge bully Blaine (Sebastian Stan, who makes the most of a small role), and Nick performed a mediocre set with his band. Even the good moments, like when Nick got laid, are now filled with tension because of his 2010-era marriage.
The trio set out on their miserable way, while Jacob tries to figure out how to not disappear. Nick cries his way through bathtub sex, Lou sighs and asks his bully for another punch. Only Adam cannot pull the trigger, trying to give things another go with Jenny (Lyndsy Fonseca) at a Poison show. There, he meets SPIN journalist April (Lizzy Caplan), with whom he actually has chemistry.
Stunned by Adam’s betrayal, the group decides to break from the plan and radically change the future. They start to have a better time. Nick takes songs from the modern day, like the Black Eyed Peas classic “Let’s Get It Started,” and the crowd loves it. Lou dreams of becoming a tech mogul, and Adam starts to understand that maybe he should seek out a partner who meets his emotional needs.
Hot Tub Time Machine has plenty of nostalgic moments, like the casting of Crispin Glover and William Zabka. But it’s ultimately a story of men realizing that their golden years were actually pretty miserable (if a crude one where not all the jokes have aged well).
With that in mind, the movie’s final message is not half bad: the chance to rewrite the future is something that should be embraced, not feared.
Hot Tub Time Machine is streaming now on HBO Max.