When two films dealing with the same issues just happen to appear on screens nationwide on the same day, it may be an indicator of some undercurrent in the zeitgeist ... or, given the vagaries of production and distribution, it may be no more than simple coincidence. So let’s discreetly sidestep pronouncements about any broad cultural or political significance in the simultaneous arrivals of “Greenberg” and (oh, how I love to say it!) “Hot Tub Time Machine.”
Both movies are about men in their 40s whose adult lives have been nonstop disappointments – unsatisfying romances, lost friendships, abandonment of career ambitions. Basically stalled, each revisits the world of his youth – in one case figuratively, in the other quite literally – and doesn’t find precisely what he expected.
Given that thematic base, it shouldn’t be surprising that even specific story points are duplicated: In both films, the heroes connect with old girlfriends, only to realize that for decades they’ve been carrying mistaken views of those relationships. That may be inevitable, but other similarities are more striking.
In Noah Baumbach’s semicomedy “Greenberg,” Ben Stiller plays title character Roger Greenberg – an East Coast carpenter, who, following a nervous breakdown, returns to the Los Angeles stomping grounds of his salad days to housesit for his vacationing brother (Chris Messina). Bro is pointedly everything Roger is not – a successful professional, happily married, with a kid and even a loving dog. When not-so-lovable-loser Roger looks up his old best buddies/bandmates, he discovers that they still harbor resentment toward him over the self-absorbed behavior that shattered the group when they were on the verge of getting a recording contract.
“Hot Tub Time Machine” – from longtime John Cusack collaborator Steve Pink – centers on three losers (of varying degrees of lovability). Adam (Cusack), an insurance agent whose girlfriend has just moved out; Nick (Craig Robinson), who should have been a musician but lost his confidence long ago; and Lou (Rob Corddry), an obnoxious, alcoholic layabout. During a disappointing visit to the now-dilapidated ski resort of their youthful glories, a malfunctioning, presumably magical, hot tub sends them 24 years into the past, to relive The Night When Their Lives Took a Wrong Turn.
For all these similarities, what’s interesting is how differently Baumbach and Pink approach the themes, in both style and tone. “Greenberg” is a “serious” comedy, designed for art-house crowds; “Hot Tub Time Machine” – has there been a more upfront title since “Snakes on a Plane”? – is broad and commercial. In the latter, everything wraps up neatly at the end; its central reference point is “Back to the Future” (even to the point of having Crispin Glover in a supporting role).
Determined by a much more realistic aesthetic, “Greenberg” is not nearly so neat. Roger may learn some lessons, but there’s no real reason to think his hopeless life is going to change. Even if you sympathize with his troubles, it’s hard to actually like the guy. At best, he’s uncomfortable to be around; at worst, he’s irritating and even reprehensible. This is not a failure of execution on the part of Baumbach or Stiller; it’s the film’s valid, if unpleasant, intent. The only thing that stops it from being completely oppressive is Greta Gerwig’s wonderfully believable performance as the awkward, much younger woman whom Roger alternately woos and rejects.
“Hot Tub Time Machine” is vastly more fun, even if its neatness leaves you with less to chew on. It’s not necessarily a better film, but it’s certainly a more enjoyable one, and, unlike “Greenberg,” it has not the slightest whiff of self-importance.
“Greenberg,” Grade: B (Rated R for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language.)
“Hot Tub Time Machine,” Grade: B (Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, nudity, drug use, and pervasive language.)