Hot Tub Time Machine (United States, 2010)

March 24, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hot Tub Time Machine Poster

In the case of Hot Tub Time Machine, the title is arguably more inventive than the movie. An attempt to flavor The Hangover with a little Back to the Future, this film argues that what happens in the '80s stays in the '80s, but does so with middling results. What could be a platform for retro fun, inventive plotting, and outrageous humor instead becomes mired in tired time travel clichés, trite '80s shtick, and lazy comedy. A few big laughs make Hot Tub Time Machine watchable, if only barely. This feels more like a wasted opportunity than the next step in reviving the raunchy R-rated comedy genre that was begun last summer with The Hangover.

The introduction is 20 minutes long and gives us glimpses into the sad, unfulfilled lives of the four protagonists in 2010. Adam (John Cusack), an insurance salesman, has just gone through a bitter breakup with his girlfriend and finds himself alone except for his 20-year old nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), who lives in his basement and spends all day on the computer. Nick (Craig Robinson) is a failed musician who now works at a pet center and suspects his wife of having an affair. And the hyperactive, misanthropic Lou (Rob Corddry), has decided to end it all, but fails in his suicide attempt. After this, the other three stage an intervention. They head to a run-down ski lodge for a few days of R&R but a soak in the hot tub turns wild when they spin back 24 years to 1986. Looking as they did in their late teens, Adam, Nick, and Lou must seek to repeat their actions of a quarter century ago (thus maintaining the time line and assuring Jacob will be born) while Jacob seeks out the mysterious hot tub repairman (Chevy Chase) who can fix their problems.

Hot Tub Time Machine's casting is as mixed a bag as one can find, with most of the major players having been recruited from the small screen. The notable exception is John Cusack, who seems to be suffering through a mid-life career crisis. Either he has lost his mojo or he needs a new agent. There was a time when Cusack's name in a cast list meant something insofar as the quality of the production was concerned, but not lately. His string of mostly bad recent choices culminated in his for-paycheck participation in 2012, but Hot Tub Time Machine does not represent a mea culpa. As Adam, he's bored, boring, and boorish. Clark Duke, best known for his role in Greek, seems like a poor man's Jonah Hill. Rob Corddry, the former Daily Show correspondent, has the manic energy of a young Robin Williams, but neither the comedic talent nor the likability. In fact, it's a lot easier to hate this character and wish evil things upon him than to get behind him. The best of the lead quartet, Craig Robinson (of The Office), is solid because he seems at home in his character's skin. The supporting cast includes Lizzy Caplan as Adam's might-have-been girlfriend, veteran Chevy Chase (who will forever be known as Clark Griswold), and - in a nod to another time-travel movie - Crispin Glover as a hotel porter with one arm.

Most of the movie focuses on the characters' stumbling through one night in 1986 trying to right a few wrongs without wrecking the future. It's typical simpleminded time travel stuff, not even rising to the level of Back to the Future when addressing paradoxes. The "twist" is so obvious that it wouldn't be considered a spoiler to spell it out (although I won't). The '80s are represented not as an era but as a collage of clichés: Alf on TV, Reagan giving a speech, leg warmers and big hair, and a selection of vaguely familiar music. Despite all these cues, Hot Tub Time Machine feels less like it has transported us back in time to 1986 than that it has taken us to an '80s-themed party.

The most disappointing aspect of Hot Tub Time Machine is the humor. I won't claim there's nothing funny here because I laughed a few times. But the previews and TV clips promise a riotous comedy filled with edgy R-rated jokes. The reality is that (as is often the case) the best material is in the commercials and it's edited better into them than into the movie. A lot of what's intended to be funny falls flat, in part because it's too obvious and in part because director Steve Pink is clumsy when it comes to comedic timing. Granted, he hits a couple of home runs, but the rest of the time he strikes out swinging, flailing away at breaking balls while corkscrewing himself into the ground. It's easy to forgive a movie like The Hangover its flaws because it's such a blast. Hot Tub Time Machine tries hard but falls far short. The '80s are best left to those who can effectively exploit and lampoon them. Having lived through them, Pink should know better.

Hot Tub Time Machine (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2010-03-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1