John Cusack stars as Adam, a 40-something insurance salesman who comes home one day to find that his girlfriend has left him and taken most of his stuff. Craig Robinson (The Office) is Nick, who works a dead-end job and suspects his wife is cheating on him. Clark Duke is Jacob, Adam’s virginal, 20-year-old nephew who lives in his basement and spends all his time playing video games. And Rob Corddry (The Daily Show) is Lou, a relentless prick who is introduced in the film in a scene in which he either tries to kill himself or unwisely passes out drunk in his garage while his car is still running.
Trying to cheer up Lou, the group of guys decides to go to Kodiak Valley, the ski resort where they had some legendary times 20 years before. Now, it turns out, the ski resort is as much a dilapidated ruin as the guys’ lives, but they manage to get the same room they had back in the day, complete with the titular hot tub.
The tub is filled with a liquid that is bubbling bright yellow, like urine on the boil, and they soon find themselves transported back in time, and inhabiting their 18-year-old bodies (except Jacob, who wasn’t born yet, but don’t worry about it). They emerge into a version of 1986 that resembles movies like Ski School and Cusack’s own Better Off Dead more than real life. It comes complete with a jerky ski-patrol captain named Blaine (Sebastian Stan) who hates the guys. The characters have to decide whether to embrace their second chances or to do everything the same way they did the first time and protect the space-time continuum, so as to not “make Hitler president.”
It feels odd to say that a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine works better as a portrait of men adrift and hopeless in their 40s than it does as a comedy, but it is often true. The tonal shift is jarring between the film’s often grim early scenes and the relentless wackiness that begins after they travel back in time, but the characters’ misery early in the film, and their regret about their wasted lives, is real and palpable and oddly affecting.
The film’s gags, on the other hand, are decidedly more hit and miss. The movie tends to deploy pieces of ’80s nostalgia and forget to make a joke about them, as if merely remembering that Reagan was president in 1986 is enough to elicit a laugh (okay, maybe that’s a bad example). Chevy Chase shows up as a mysterious repairman who may know how to fix the hot tub, but he isn’t given anything funny to do. Crispin Glover, still most famous for his role in Back to the Future, fares a little better as a character whose existence revolves entirely around only one joke, but it’s an effective one. And even William Zabka, famous for playing a variety of douches in several ’80s movies, including The Karate Kid, shows up briefly and proves that he has some comedic chops, even if he still has to play a jerk.
The script, by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris, is full of gross-out gags that range from folks getting peed on to folks getting barfed on but are never funny. But the jokes are outrageous enough, and come quickly enough, that a quality gag is usually right on the tail of a clunker.
But the movie at first seems like it wants to be a parody of the clichés in the type of ’80s movie its characters seemed to have lived through, while it ends up basically spouting the same clichés of buddy comedies everywhere: the sexism, the homophobic panic, the tired gags—they’re all there.
The movie is helped immeasurably by its very game cast. Corddry absolutely owns the movie. His performance has the kind of kinetic comedic intensity that is hard to come by. And Corddry’s character is strictly an unrepentant jerk. The fact that he is likeable at all is a testament to how Corddry plays him.
Robinson is very funny in the film and brings the same dry understatement to bear that he has used to great effect on The Office. Newcomer Duke, who looks like Apple pitchman John Hodgman squashed down to 4/5 scale, is also very funny, even if his storyline mostly involves him running around in a Marty McFly-like quest to ensure that he gets born. Duke has great comedic timing, and this role could be a breakout for him.
Interestingly enough, if there is a weak link in the film, it’s Cusack. He isn’t bad here, but he seems oddly disengaged, which is weird for a movie that he produced. But that’s mostly okay, since the film tends to use Cusack, veteran of iconic ’80s films such as Say Anything and The Sure Thing, more as a walking, talking piece of nostalgia than as an actor.
The movie was directed by Steve Pink, who co-wrote High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank with Cusack. Pink directs the film like an episode of mediocre television, resulting in an indifferently shot movie full of pacing problems. The movie also fails almost completely as a narrative, even in that enemy of logic known as the time travel film, and mixes nonsensical plotting with go-nowhere subplots like Cusack’s perfunctory romance with Lizzy Caplan. Again, the excuse is that the movie is called Hot Tub Time Machine, and thus has the bar set pretty low, but I don’t think that basic competence is too much to expect from a film. Luckily, when the movie’s jokes are working, we forget all this.
Hot Tub Time Machine has quite a few funny scenes and raises some surprisingly interesting ideas for a raunchy sex comedy, but many of the gags fall flat, and most of those interesting ideas go undeveloped. It is a better movie than one might have expected based on the title, but it never quite manages to be an unqualified success.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.