The self-explanatory Hot Tub Time Machine looks and sounds like a lowbrow teen comedy from the ’80s. The proper fashion trends (leg warmers, spandex, upturned collars) are present and accounted for. The proper music (Poison, Bowie, Spandau Ballet) has been licensed. The proper lighting (muddy, low-budget, soundstagy) has been achieved. Now what is director Steve Pink going to do with them? The answer is, not enough. However, the makers of Hot Tub Time Machine are nothing if not clever marketers. The movie is both a nostalgia piece for baby boomers and a gross out comedy for their kids. But as our quartet of modern day heroes travels back to1986 to relive their (oh, does it really matter?), you come to realize this is neither spoof nor satire. In its demographic spread and hard-R raunchiness, it’s actually a typical modern, male-skewing comedy, one that justifies its laziness by targeting ’80s movies that were sometimes equally lazy. Utilizing pervasive social media and numerous promo screenings, the movie looks to open well. It’s just too bad Pink and company declared open season on an embarrassing decade then armed themselves with a urine-filled squirt gun.
The most remarkable thing about Hot Tub Time Machine is that its box office performance has broader implications than just a few lines on the studio’s ledger. Debt laden MGM is currently on the auction block entertaining offers, primarily from Time Warner and Lions Gate Entertainment, that are lower than the studio’s owners were hoping. While most of MGM’s value comes from its library (that includes the James Bond franchise), a strong opening by Hot Tub Time Machine could give potential suitors a quantum of solace that MGM’s film division has a heartbeat, which could drive up the price. A poor showing could be further evidence that MGM is a fire sale. So the savior of the studio founded in 1924 may not be James Bond or Robocop, but Lloyd Dobler, the boom box hoisting hero of 1989’s Say Anything. One of Hot Tub Time Machine’s only genuinely nifty moves is getting John Cusack, Dobler himself, to topline the film. With his long and droopy face, Cusack has spent the ’80s and beyond as a single guy of deep yearning and here he plays Adam, in a funk after being dumped by his girlfriend. That puts him on par with his best friends, the ex-rocker-now-dog-washer Nick (Craig Armstrong) and perpetual frat boy Lou (Rob Corddry). After Lou almost dies from carbon monoxide poisoning (to the tune of Mötley Crüe’s Home Sweet Home), Adam and Nick take him to the Kodiak Valley ski resort where decades earlier they got drunk, stoned and laid in one, epically memorable trip. Although the resort is now a dump, they fire up the hot tub (after disposing of a dead raccoon) and, through means that matter not a whit, wind up in raucous 1986, where the boys can now party like the good old days.
There are critics, fans and wishful thinkers who will proclaim that Hot Tub Time Machine is The Hangover of 2010. But it’s really the Back to the Future of 2010 because Pink takes many of his story and casting cues from Bob Zemeckis’ classic time travel adventure. Hot Tub’s best gag is a runner involving Phil, the resort’s bellhop (Back to the Future oddball Crispin Glover). By 2010, Phil will have lost one of his arms. But in 1986, he’s got them both, leading to a series of very funny near-misses and an eventual explanation of how Phil’s limb got severed. Adam and his pals are joined by a fourth, the Marty McFly stand-in Jacob (Clark Duke), a twentysomething writer of Stargate fan fiction who phases in and out of existence depending on how close his mother is to having the sex that will conceive him. So there’s really nothing original going on, which is part of the fun but also part of the problem. The film doesn’t want to comment on bad ’80s comedies. It wants to be a bad ’80s comedy. According to an interview with Corddry, co-writer Josh Heald went to college with the writers of the Harold and Kumar films. This should provide a clue as to the film’s level of humor. To some, this will be good news. Others will justifiably fear the pulling of car keys out of a dog’s behind, the gay jokes and the long and who-cares discussions about not upsetting the time continuum. So you can fault the writing, but you can’t fault the cast. Craig Armstrong is fast becoming the African-American Luis Guzman: indispensably funny and a very cool cat. He gets the biggest laughs, whether he’s deadpanning the movie’s title or sobbing when he has to reject a naked hottie for fear of changing history. If Armstrong is the nancy boy of the group, Corddry is the raging skirt chaser, which leaves Cusack the burden of being the straight man fated to convey the film’s half-hearted themes of regret and the importance of friendship.
Although only the largest and most heinous mistakes matter in a movie so knowingly ridiculous, it bears mentioning that this is pretty unpolished filmmaking. Supporting characters, especially the women, periodically vanish (maybe into a Hot Tub Earlier Draft) and we’ll have to wait for the DVD deleted scenes to discover the meaning of “great white buffalo.” And what’s with Adam’s bizarrely dramatic speech about the E. coli deaths of 33 people? Admittedly those issues only become a serious distraction if you’re not laughing. And there are a smattering of chuckles, from the boys’ desire to “prevent Miley Cyrus” to the villains taking the 1984 Russian invasion drama Red Dawn way too seriously. But the ’80s was a veritable museum of mediocrity ripe for destruction, an opportunity that Hot Tub Time Machine completely, and sadly, declines. Then again, maybe the decade that gave us Kajagoogoo, Manimal and Staying Alive finally has the movie it deserves.
Cast: John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke and Crispin Glover
Director: Steve Pink
Screenwriters: Josh Heald, Sean Anders & John Morris
Producers: John Cusack, Grace Loh, Matt Moore and Matt Moore
Rating: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, nudity, drug use and pervasive language
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: March 26, 2010