ON BORROWED TIME: Reviews of The Art of the Steal and Hot Tub Time Machine

The Art of the Steal is a documentary by Don Argot revolving around the battle over ownership, or stewardship, of the art collection located at the Barnes Museum in Merion, PA., a suburb outside of Philadelphia (in an odd reversal of good cop/bad cop, the sophisticated, more worldly city folk are the villains here, while the conservative, Babbity suburbanites are cast in the role of the last bastions of purity in art; who knew?). The documentary is very detailed in explaining the history of this conflict; one almost sat terrified, wondering whether certain scenes were going to be on the test. But when all was said and done, I think the friend I went with summed it up best when he said it all seemed something like a tempest in a teapot. The conflict actually began in 1926 when Albert C. Barnes presented his valuable art collection of impressionist and other artwork to the Philadelphia public. To say the media of the time, especially the Philadelphia Inquirer, reacted to the exhibit with disdain is an understatement. Barnes was excoriated for his taste and his collection ridiculed. In a huff (or to quote Groucho Marx, a minute and a huff), he took his baseball and went home by building a museum/school in Merion and housed his artwork there, forbidding anybody that smelled of culture, any critic, anyone who made too much money, to see it. This part of the film was delicious fun. What artist or producer wouldn’t love to tell critics and others of that ilk to go screw themselves and get away with it? Oh, sweet revenge, how beautiful is thy sting. And this was fine as long as Barnes was alive. But while art may live forever, people do not and Barnes died in the 1950’s and the museum was passed from person to person, none of whom unfortunately could keep it going without violating stipulations of Barnes’s will. The last straw was Richard Glanton who toured the exhibit and opened it to the public, thus saving the Barnes by making enough money to remodel the building with enough moolah left over to take care of the place until the second coming. But that money went the way of the wind over a stupid lawsuit when the locals, who were tired of the crowds coming to the Barnes, fought against adding adequate public parking and Glanton accused them of racism. Once this happened, the time became ripe for the forces of evil (the city of Philadelphia) to sweep in and take the exhibits as their own. The critics of this move claim that people behind the move were Philistines who don’t care about art, only commerce. That may very well be true. But the alternative was housing the collection in a location that was not self sustaining with leadership that couldn’t keep it going in an area where nobody really wanted it until it was being taken away from them. Much has been made of how one-sided the argument in the movie is and that Argot failed to give the devil (the cultural elite in Philadelphia) its due. What I think is even more pertinent is that in spite of Argot not giving a balanced reporting of the situation, he still couldn’t persuade me the defenders of the Barnes were in the right. The good guys want to suggest this is a David and Goliath story when in reality it’s a Goliath and Goliath story. The supporters of the Barnes may want to paint themselves as the true inheritors of this eccentric collector’s philosophy on art, but in reality, this philosophy is not really based on the best way to display the art, it’s based on someone who got himself into a fit of pique over a bad review. Nearly one hundred years have passed since that review and it’s hard for me to want to base a plan of action on that anymore.

Hot Tub Time Machine (a title that should probably win the truth in advertising award because, yeah, that’s pretty much what the movie is about) is also concerned with present day events being influenced by something that happened in the past. Three middle aged Peter Pans are going through a mid-life crisis (a seeming contradiction in terms, but still, there you have it). The two played by John Cusack (he of the burnt out hang dog look) and Craig Robinson take the suicidal third, played by Rob Corddry, to a ski resort that was the scene of their last great year. Also along for the reluctant ride is Clark Duke, Cusack’s nephew. The resort is now run down (like the three men), but they make the best of it. When their broken down, dead rat infested hot tub is magically restored by a mysterious man who appears and disappears for no apparent logic (played for some odd reason by Chevy Chase; not quite as iconic a choice as Don Knotts in Pleasentville) and the men accidentally spill a Russian energy drink on the electric work, they are transported back to that seminal night in the 1980’s when Michael Jackson was black (if you’ve seen the preview, you get the joke) and the guys made all those wrong decisions that brought them to their sorry state of existence. In the end, the movie, written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders, and John Morris is what would be called good, goofy fun, not great, but better (or at least as good as) The Hangover. The structure is clunky; it can’t seem to make up its mind as to how the hot tub became a time machine and what part Chevy Chase’s character had in it. Too much of the humor is dependent on homophobia and a fear of strong women (you know the Robinsons’ character is pussy whipped because he took his wife’s name—only a man without testicles would ever think of doing such a ghastly thing). And the whole outcome is based on the fantasy that if we had only taken that other road that diverged in the wood our lives would have been ideal, rather than just different (as Robert Frost’s poem actually suggests). Okay, so it’s no Back to the Future or It’s a Wonderful Life, but then what is? As a guilty pleasure, one could do far worse.

So tell me what you think.

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