The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Hot Tub Time Machine" (2010) and Obama

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

I forget which one of my writing instructors it was...perhaps Robert McKee, who said that comedies are often precisely described by their titles. HTTM pretty much spills the beans right there: a farce built around a high-concept, with quite broad humor and the requisite bawdy sight gags. The setup is that three friends: John Cusack, Rob Corddry, and Craig Robinson are all ne'er do wells who have known each other since high school. After Corddry attempts suicide, they decide to try to recapture the magic of their youth by returning to a ski lodge/party town they remember as the best time of their lives. But the town has fallen on hard times, the lodge is filled with senior citizens, and their room's hot tub has mysteriously turned into...well, you guessed it. Due to some foolishness with a can of Russian Red Bull, and the overacting of Chevy Chase, they find themselves thrown back twenty five years, to a specific night of debauchery that they must try to emulate, precisely, or never return to their miserable lives. Or something like that.'s neither terrible nor wonderful. Has some good moments and some very funny stuff. Potty humor and gay panic jokes abound. But overall, I'd only give it a "B-"


Warning! Sambo Alert!

Well...the truth is that when I saw the coming attractions, my first thought was: wow! Another comedy with an obese black man whose primary duty is to make the white guys look slender. And Craig Robinson definitely fits that bill. But someone over on Rotten Tomatoes said that he got quite laid, and early reviews of the movie sounded like it MIGHT have been the kind of hysterical "Hangover" style farce that could break the 100 million barrier, and so I felt I should check it out, in the name of history.

1) Yep, Robinson is fat. And as in "Couples Retreat" he is denuded publicly, and jokes made about the size of his equipment.

2) There is a sex scene...sort of. But I noticed a couple of things: they never kiss, you never see them touch (!), and he doesn't enjoy it. He is crying over his cheating wife the entire time (this is a similar gimmick to the one used in "Bad Boys" to explain why Martin Lawrence had no interest in a hot witness. Will Smith "the player" is "comically confused" with Martin Lawrence, so that Smith is with Lawrence's wife, , enough that the chick jumps off and glares at him. Because they are in a hot tub at the time, any contact is below the surface of the water. Without the slightest degree of intimacy, it is a strange scene indeed.

3) She is white. I don't know what it is, but black people have come to some strange place where they are more acceptable having sex outside their racial group than within it. What in the hell is THAT about? I never saw that one coming at all.

My overall feeling is that America is slowly, painfully inching toward acceptance of our humanity. Right now, a black man can have sex in a movie if there is no intimacy, nothing to see, and he is fat enough to not be a threat. That movie is still not going to do well at the box office. Now then, whites often point to the movies that DO have sex, claiming they aren't very good.

The trouble with this is:

1) They didn't necessarily think that the movies where white guys had sex were good, either. Curiously, this doesn't seem to hurt them at the box office.

2) Their statements have a certain degree of unconscious irony. After all...they are white. My theory is that there is an unconscious aversion. They look at these films and say: "hmmm...that wasn't good." Which is EXACTLY what one would predict if my theory were correct, right? A telling little observation: black people tend to like these movies more than the white audiences. Rather predictable...but whites tend to explain this by suggesting blacks are cutting these movies extra slack. (For instance, white audiences disliking "Seven Pounds" while black audiences gave it an NAACP Image award.) Well, that's probably true, but look in the mirror: if blacks are extra lenient...why is it so hard to grasp that whites might be extra critical? Split the difference, and you'll probably have the truth: that blacks and whites probably lean to the same degree, but to opposite directions.

3) Frantically trying to believe America is Post-racial, (come ON! The human race isn't post-racial) Someone will always blame "Hollywood" as if the bastion of liberality is the most racist part of the country. Get a life.

4) What if these movies actually ARE...well, bad? What if movies in which black men have sex actually do, on average, suck? That is an even more fascinating possibility. To what would we attribute this? Why would they suck worse than films with white guys getting laid. Actually, there are some tempting possibilities.

If my theory of the "10% disconnect" is accurate, then that's not just going to be with audiences, is it? It will also be with the production staff. Let's say that for whatever reason, a good script comes down the pike, and somehow a black guy gets cast in a role that has sexuality. What could go wrong at this point?

1) The script can go through additional revisions, during which it is tuned to the actors' specific personae. Dialogue and "business" are adjusted, with a room full of white people deciding what feels "right" for this black character. As I suspect happened with chubby Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner in "The Invention of Lying" (and I KNOW happened with "Beverly Hills Cop") for one reason or another intimacy is removed. Suddenly people in the room just ain't feelin' it. doesn't work in movies any more. Ah...wouldn't it be funnier if there were this confusion of identities, you see... about if he is so guilty that he can't about if the girl's brothers came along so "Shaft" and the witness are never about if the black guy is really gay! Yeah, that works...

And on, and on.

But there are other ways things can go wrong: editors, prop guys, special effects guys...almost all white. Almost all with the same 10% aversion. Think that dragging your feet just a tiny, tiny bit can have a cumulative effect on the quality of a film?


And this actually leads to something I watched over Obama's presidency so far. And hesitated to bring it up, but I'm gonna do it. There were several people who suggested that his race was advantageous to him in the race, and I mocked them, frankly. The idea was absurd.

But...I can see one way that it could be true, and that aspects of it played out recently.

Hear me out.

Right now, white audiences are more likely to accept blacks as God or the President than just a normal guy who gets laid. How sick is that? But it is a researchable fact.

The "Magical Negro" trope is so infamous and widespread that I remember lecturing on it at Clarion only to have a couple of students confess they had MN's in stories they were working on RIGHT THEN. Scary. Without the right to be just human beings in the minds of whites, we go from being Magical Negroes to Sambos with little stop in-between at simple humanity.

I've often said I think Obama is the smartest guy I've seen on the national political scene...but also said that I don't know if that will translate into being a good president. Let me start with that opinion and see where it goes. (I don't want to have to keep explaining or justifying the original opinion, so just roll with it, O.K?)

The pressures against blacks taking high office are huge (note racial percentages in the Senate). Anyone black who can make it through to that level is way above the average white who makes it to the same level. The AVERAGE black person is pushed down and back, but a sufficiently extraordinary one is actually lauded: by Liberals because it proves their position that race is just melanin, and by Conservatives because it proves that America is fair and balanced. So if you can make it that far, and don't trigger guilt feelings, there actually is a little apparent advantage (what people don't factor in is how very few can make it that far.)

He seemed, in other words, to be a "Magical Negro." Now, America was in, and to a degree still is in, some pretty rough straits. An awful lot of people felt we needed a miracle. And here comes Morgan "God" Freeman...I mean Will "Bagger Vance" Smith...I mean Barrack Obama...maybe HE can get us out of this! I mean, we've got to change our luck...I mean, do something very different, or we're in trouble.

Now, listening to Right wing media, as expected, he was excoriated from the day he was elected ("the Obama recession" was Rush's label, starting the day after the election) with an overall racial tinge that was fascinating at least partially because Conservatives literally complained that they couldn't mock him (as is their political right...hell, probably their obligation) without racist overtones. That is as telling a remark about the human subconscious as I can imagine. But what has come from the Left has been just as telling and fascinating. As people began to realize that he WASN'T magical (was, from my position, just a very smart guy with good intentions and scads of charisma) they began to turn on him. The needle never went from "Superman" to "normal guy." It was a totally binary response: either genius, or moron. It jumped from God to Sambo. Now, I've admitted to knowing little of politics many, many times.

I only have a clear opinion about health care because the stats overlap with areas of previous interest, so that I have a way of evaluating relative efficiency of different systems that feels very solid to me. But...the economy? No idea. This is because I just never watched this stuff. But from that very limited perspective, I'm telling you that the vitriol has been amazing. The Right is calling him a socialist, Marxist, Muslim foreigner trying to destroy American industry. At the same time that disappointed Leftists were calling him a cowardly, weak sell-out to the Insurance companies.

It seemed bizarre to me that the Right screams that he's at some extreme to the Left, while the Left screamed that he was a secret Right-winger, and that almost none of them woke up and realized that both of these things couldn't be true...well, I guess some of them did, and came to the conclusion that there is a gigantic conspiracy, Republicans pretending to be upset while secretly relishing his actions. Leftist pretending to be upset to disguise that he is actually giving the country away...

It was, and is, a form of low-level madness, I think. It was really telling that so few pundits seemed to grasp that the phenomenal resistance mounted by the Insurance companies [a million dollars a day] or a Republican party that vowed to make this "his Waterloo" would influence what got into that bill, and the deals that would have to be made with Conservative Democrats to pass it.

After he got it through...all the Liberal shows suddenly flipped back over to "Superman" again. Never a stop at "just a guy trying to do a job." Black or white. Super or nothing at all. The Right, of course, has never given up the non-stop 24/7 pounding. When Obama apparently tried very hard to build bipartisan support, I couldn't believe the outrage and contempt. As if he had not been known for his entire career for this kind of behavior. But again, to see what is going on, I believe you HAVE to cut off the opinions of anyone who has the position that "the others" are less moral or intelligent than they or their team (and that applies to politics, gender, or race), and that the thoughts of those in the middle can be considered to have greater clarity.

I am proud of my President. Don't know what the future will bring...hopefully the same sort of Medicare Buy-in or Single Payer system, health care wise, that brings simple, demonstrable increases in quality and decreases in cost the world over. And the Republicans who voted in a block against it? If this thing starts to work (and there are so many role models of it working that I have great optimism) they are in serious trouble. There is no way that that solid-bloc vote was simple conscience. To the degree that that was political maneuver, heads deserve to roll.

But it takes me back to an earlier thought. "Hot Tub Time Machine" displays an urge to fuzz the edges. It suggests that the lines really are blurring a bit when it comes to simply accepting the humanity of the "other." The presidency of Barrack Obama is critical to this process. If he is just a DECENT president, it is a game-changer, and for that reason (and because he seems to see the world much as I do) I am cheering for him, and blacks are cutting him extra slack. As whites have noticed. Without looking in the mirror and wondering about their own reactions.

But then, that's being human, isn't it?


LaVeda H. Mason said...

Steve, I've experienced this phenom a time or two, and I've never been able to describe it before, but you've done it precisely.

I've always referred to it as 'being looked at like I'm a talking dog', because you can't just be a human being... if you do something good, you are 'ultra' special... the exception that proves the rule.

I think that when Americans wake up in a few decades, they will look back at this time with shame, also.

Shady_Grady said...

On a somewhat related note.

Pagan Topologist said...

I agree, Steve, that Obama is the smartest person in national politics we have seen in a long time. Smarter than Bill Clinton who would have had my vote for this title pre-Obama. But, as you say, smart does not always translate into being an effective leader. In my opinion, the two other brilliant presidents in my lifetime were Ford and Truman. Being brilliant did not help Ford much, since he was not especially charismatic.

I still have great hopes for Obama. I shall most likely vote for him for re-election; I did not vote for him the first time, since I viewed him as too far right to be compatible with my own convictions.

Anonymous said...

Magical Negro? Steve, sometimes you pretty much crack me up in the way that you are so blunt in your honesty. It is so refreshing for me to read here. Carry on, my friend. You rock. And you have the best movie reviews on the internet. Seriously. And I want to see HTTM because, even though I am a middle-aged woman, I have the blunt sense of humor of a teenage boy. Which might explain my deep appreciation of your propensity toward outing the ugly truth of the scuzzy facts of life.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Agreed that Obama is best explained as a very smart pragmatic man trying to do an insanely difficult job.

Have you heard of the glass cliff? I've seen it used to describe the situation where women only get put in charge of companies which are in disastrously bad shape. I'm concerned that Obama is dealing with a glass cliff, and I'm not just worried for his sake.

Unknown said...

I've noticed that Hollywood often uses not kissing to signify the kind of sex you're not supposed to sympathize with or find hot, whether it's the killers bedding a couple of prostitutes in Fargo, or the sex that gets a drugged out Ruth pregnant in Citizen Ruth. And it's definitely effective in getting me not to find the sex hot; you could put a really hot actor and actress together in bed, and if they don't kiss at all, I'm not going to be enjoying it as sex.

camobel said...

Quite worthwhile info, thank you for the article.