Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries) Talks Steve Pink’s Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Surely the only piece on the decade-hopping comedy sequel to reference the Buddha's sense of humor and diss both film school and Vladimir Nabokov.

I asked to write to Hot Tub Time Machine 2 this week. Now I’m wondering why. I’m trying to remember the moment I made this decision. I don’t recall giving it much thought. I glanced over the list of films being released and quickly chose Hot Tub Time Machine 2. Was it a moment of cynicism? Maybe. Maybe I just chose the “biggest” movie on the list. Maybe I figured more people would read a piece about a high-profile film? I feel like the Talkhouse has two specialties:

1. Indie filmmaker intelligently takes down Hollywood blockbuster, as with Swanberg’s swipe on Sex Tape.

2. Indie filmmaker surprisingly loves big blockbuster, as with Alex Ross Perry’s piece on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Since both of these types of pieces center on a blockbuster, maybe I thought I could nail a Talkhouse special and lots of people would read it. That would be great because then people would be reminded that I exist and that my movie is coming out this week.

Unfortunately, I neither loved nor loathed Hot Tub Time Machine 2. There will be no Talkhouse Film special nailed here. Neither loving nor loathing Hot Tub Time Machine 2, what can I say about it?

How about this? In the spirit of the film, which is entirely (and I believe willfully) incoherent, I will offer a few random and unconnected thought strains that ran through my mind as I was watching Hot Tub Time Machine 2:

1. Vladimir Nabokov is a pussy.

Within the first minute of HTTM2, I was laughing. This led me to believe that I was going to like HTTM2. I started to get nervous. My thoughts drifted from the film to a day several weeks ago, when I was killing time and drifted into a used bookstore. I’d been trying to get into Nabokov because everybody always talks about how great he is, so I floated into the lit section. A bunch of his books were there, as per usual. I picked up one called Strong Opinions. On the sleeve, it said that the book consisted of interviews. My interest was piqued, mostly because I’d read a bunch of his novels and found them cold, labored, barely funny and mostly boring. I wanted to know why this man of clear intelligence wrote such lousy books with such zest and polish. What ideas did this obvious genius possess that made him write this way, when he clearly could have done anything at all, even written different books in ways that I might like better? I did not get the answer to the question directly, but I did get a clue. In one of the interviews, the interviewer asks Nabokov who his favorite authors are. Nabokov refuses to answer the question, saying something to the effect of, “Let’s say I like author X, Y, and Z and I say so. Let’s say author X reads that and hates author Y with a passion, well, then author Y will think me a fool.”

I was touched to learn that a literary giant deep into his career at the time of the interview would care so much what his peers thought of him, but I couldn’t help wondering if his desire for approval trickled into his books, which are as emotionally empty (to me) as they are cleverly composed. I get the sense that he’s hiding behind his beautiful prose.

I came back to the film. I was laughing. Did laughing at HTTM2 mean I liked it? Was I ready to admit that to the jury of my peers represented by the Talkhouse crowd, or would I hide as Nabokov did? Were the filmmakers of HTTM2 hiding behind their jokes, or were they courageously making fools of themselves for our amusement? Were they smart people masquerading as fools because they were too scared to risk trying to do something “smart?” Were they dumb people being dumb for fun and money, revealing themselves entirely? Were they smart people being smart by being “stupidly” funny for money? I could answer none of these questions definitively.

As the movie continued, I started laughing less. I worried that I was starting to hate HTTM2. Now what was I going to do? If I end up hating HTTM2, would I admit that? After all, the filmmakers are artists and thus kindred spirits. When people don’t like my movies, I always wish they wouldn’t write about them. After all, I’m trying my best and I already know everything that’s wrong with my work. But wouldn’t the world be boring then, if nobody said what they thought and everybody just tried to keep things positive? Also, what if one day I wanted to work with one of the actors or producers of HTTM2? If they found my bad review, would it ruin my chances of working with them? Was I an arrogant moron for thinking that one day I might have the chance to work with Craig Robinson? I couldn’t answer those questions either.

I started to laugh again and then started worrying about the first set of questions again, but forgot about them after a few minutes.

2. Film school is bullshit.

In film school, they teach you that your film should have a story, that the story should make sense, that each event in the story should lead logically and believably to the next. They also tell you that your characters should be likable and that they should have “save the cat” moments. HTTM2 has none of these things.

The story of HTTM2 is as follows: An asshole gets shot in the dick. Nobody sees the shooter. The asshole is about to die, but his asshole friends drag him to a hot tub which is also a time machine in the hopes that they can all go to the past before the asshole who got shot in the dick dies so they can stop his murder before it happens. Instead, the hot tub takes them to the future, which is really the present. I assure you that no matter how hard you think about this, it will never really make sense. I also assure you that you will never see a film with as many unlikeable rogues as HTTM2. Its characters do nothing but hurt each other physically, take drugs and viciously make fun of each other.

And yet the audience laughed uproariously and left the theater smiling and saying things like, “That was fun. The beginning was a little slow” — i.e. precisely the kind of things they say about every other movie, including ones with stories and likable characters.

Save your money. Film school is spreading misinformation. HTTM2 is telling the truth. Just put funny people in your movie. Give them some decent jokes to make. You’ll be fine.

3. HTTM2 is a Zen koan

In HTTM2, the protagonists think that they can repair their present by leaving it for the past. Instead, they end up in the future, which turns out to be the present. When they return to the past, they realize that’s the present too. This discourse on temporality is done for laughs, but it is derived from Eastern thought, and the Buddha always looks like he’s laughing anyway. The film makes a lot of jokes about previous time-travel films, but HTTM2 is also making fun of us for the belief that fuels our desire to see such films, the notion that being anywhere but the present is going to save us.

Lawrence Michael Levine wrote, directed and starred in the feature films Gabi on the Roof in July and Wild Canaries, which was released by Sundance Selects and is now on Netflix. He also starred in and produced Sophia Takal’s Green. Other acting credits include Joe Swanberg’s The Zone and All the Light in the Sky, Keir Poliz and Damon Maulucci’s Detonator, Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding and Simon Barrett’s V/H/S/2.