‘Hot Tub Time Machine': Finding Sadness In A Happy Ending

Though the box office gross for “Hot Tub Time Machine” was eclipsed by “How To Train Your Dragon,” I hope enough of you saw the movie to participate in a discussion of the ending. Don’t worry, for those of you who haven’t yet had a chance to see it, I won’t spoil any details until after the jump. If you had written off “Hot Tub” as just another time travel comedy, I encourage you to check it out and come back here with your thoughts.

I wonder if some people avoided “Hot Tub” because it seemed less focused on the time travel/sci-fi elements than it was on the gross-out comedy elements. The science of time travel isn’t fully explored in the movie, but the very broad moral issues and hypotheticals are addressed, mostly for comic effect (one gag in particular involving a squirrel humorously addresses the “butterfly effect”). The ending raises one of the issues I’ve had with certain time travel stories ever since “Back to the Future,” a movie that “Hot Tub” references a whole heck of a lot. You’ve been warned… spoilers ahead!

At the end of the movie, Rob Corddry’s character, Lou, stays behind in 1986 in order to redo his past 24 years. One of his goals, now that he realizes he’s Jacob’s (Clark Duke) dad, is to give the kid the father he never had — and be a good dad at that. When the other time travelers, including Jacob, return to 2010 via their magic hot tub, we find out that Lou has married the girl he knocked up (Jacob’s mom), presumably made good on his promise of being a good father, become famous as the lead singer for Motley Crue (now called Motley Lue) and ended up a billionaire by inventing Google (which he instead names Lougle).

That’s a happy ending for Lou, but what about for Jacob? He retains the memories of his life prior to all these changes and probably has no idea what it was like those alternate 26 years having Lou as his father and having a wealthy upbringing. There is similar sadness in the new lives of Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson), who come to find out they’ve had different existences for the past 26 years, as well.

Adam is suddenly happily married to a girl he met back in ’86, but he has no memory of the two decades they shared together, something most people would wish to have experienced. Nick similarly wasn’t allowed to enjoy his years as a successful recording artist and famous producer.

I thought back to the similar ending of “Back to the Future,” when Marty (Michael J. Fox) returns from 1955 to find that his family is much better off than they had been before he traveled through time. He has also benefited, discovering that he’s now the owner of the truck he always wanted. But in that movie, the altered present is a blessing for everyone. Marty may not remember growing up with such successful parents and siblings, but there doesn’t seem to be enough change that he missed out on anything really big, and he’s probably much happier to have created a better life for his family.

The argument could also apply to “Hot Tub” in that Lou’s friends are probably happy enough that their buddy is no longer miserable to the point of suicide. Yet there will probably always be a sadness for them, that they missed some great, enormously significant years in their own lives.

It’s an interesting question to ask yourself: would you go back and change something so that your present is better even if it means you don’t get to experience most of what got you there? Think further than what happens in “Hot Tub.” What if Cusack’s character returned not just to find he’s married to Lizzy Caplan but also has a few teenage kids. How upsetting would it be to meet your kids for the first time when they’re almost completely grown up?

What would you prefer? A great new destination without enjoyment of the road to get there or the experience of every detail on the path to whatever place, great or mediocre, that you’ve arrived at?