Director: Steve Pink
Starring: John Cusack, Rob Corddrey, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Chevy Chase, Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan, Lyndsy Fonseca
Running Time: 99 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Glancing at its title, it would be easy to assume Hot Tub Time Machine is the kind of time travel comedy you've seen before and would have little interest in seeing again. That assumption would be wrong. While it does contain elements similar to previous time travel comedies, this carves its own niche and ends the R-rated comedy drought we've been having lately. What impressed me most about the film is how much it managed to jam in, using dirty humor to milk the most out of an already promising premise, fully exploiting the technology, fashions, music and the consequences of time travel to its maximum potential. Anyone who knows me could have guessed there was little chance I wouldn't love this given it combines my two favorite things in movies: Time travel and the 1980's (in that order). But even I was surprised just how much fun it was.
The whole film kind of plays like a messed-up tribute to Back to the Future in how it cribs the elements that made that picture so successful and effectively spoofs them. Sometimes it does it literally, as in the case of a memorable sub-plot involving one of the stars from that classic movie. It also takes a couple of comics capable of grating on the nerves when given poor material and makes them likable. And as for the film's star, this might as well be the most entertaining project he's been involved with since the decade this is set. The filmmakers could have easily rested on their laurels, coasting along on the strong premise to craft a one-joke movie so it's to their credit they were interested in making this hilarious AND smart. And sorry, but besides being one of the most satisfying R-rated comedies I've seen in a very long time, I'd also say it's superior to last year's more popular The Hangover.
Insurance salesman Adam (John Cusack) is nursing yet another break-up and barely putting up with his geeky nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) playing video games in his basement, when he gets the call to come to the aid of his former best friend, Lou (Rob Corddry), a past-his-prime alcoholic with anger issues in the hospital following a suicide attempt. Along with the unhappily married, former rapper Nick (Craig Robinson), the friends treat Lou to a return trip to the Kodiak Valley Ski Resort, where they shared their wildest times as youths. Unfortunately, it's now a run-down dump and, seemingly like them, time has passed it by. A crazy night of drinking in the hot tub leads to an electronic malfunction that blasts all four back to 1986 where they aren't given much input by the tub repairman (played awesomely by Chevy Case as his usual snarky self) how to get back or what to do while they're there. Occupying the bodies of their 80's counterparts, they've seen The Butterfly Effect enough times to realize they have to exactly re-trace the steps they made then or face really bad consequences. But the temptation to fiddle with the past is just too great and before long they're forced to just embrace the chaos and try to right the wrongs until they can get home.
From the second these guys first realize where they are and what's going on and are hilariously bombarded by images of ALF, Ronald Reagan and MTV I knew this movie was going to get this right. It wisely doesn't get too bogged down in the details of time travel and instead focuses on the insane weekend they had in '86, affectionately mocking everything about the decade while delivering as many dirty jokes and rapid-fire sight gags as possible at its expense. The script goes all out holding nothing back and when the characters do decide that it might be better to tinker with the past (and how they go about doing it) the action just keeps getting funnier. There's a sub-plot involving Back to the Future's Crispin Glover as a one-armed bellhop so hysterical I was on the edge of my seat waiting for his next appearance and anxiously awaiting how it would be resolved. In just this brief supporting role, the creepy Glover outright steals the movie from everyone, which is a tall feat when you factor in Chase's appearance and a cameo from a well disguised classic 80's villain in a hilariously disgusting scene involving sports gambling.
As in most time travel movies, in addition to commentating on whether culture progressed or regressed, each character has a wrong in their past they have to set right and when the movie needs to occasionally take a break from the gross-out humor to address that, it does so effectively without ever turning sappy or sacrificing the laughs. As the protagonist of sorts, I can't say this is Cusack's best comic performance or that the role couldn't have been filled by someone else, but I'm glad it wasn't because there is a certain nostalgia factor with him starring we wouldn't have with another actor. The whole experience is enhanced seeing him "come home" to the great 80's style comedy he would have starred in during that decade. He actually looks like he's having a good time and in the process is breaking the lengthy streak of questionable career choices he's made through the years. This represents the kind of fun film that used to be his calling card and given his producing credit on it you'd hope that maybe he's finally starting to realize that.
The Cusack resurgence extends to the love interest, April, a Spin magazine writer played by the delightful Lizzy Caplan in the type of part that usually goes to Zooey Deschanel. Dare I say she does it just as well? It's smallish (probably too small) but in just a few brief scenes she makes it feel indispensable, recalling classic Cusack love interests in Say Anything and High Fidelity. Corddrey and Robinson are used to the best of their vulgar, gross-out capabilities, while Duke should be the odd man out as the nerdier version of Michael Cera, if he wasn't so good at it. The fact he's playing the only character not yet alive when the events in the film take place is incorporated cleverly into the story, making the whole situation funnier and even more uncomfortably disgusting.
The year is still young (and weak), but back-handed compliment or not, this is the most enjoyable movie I've seen thus far. If there was ever a comedy aimed directly at me, it's this. It's almost hard to believe it's directed by Steve Pink, who a few years ago botched an almost equally promising premise with Accepted. That suffered from not going far enough with its idea, whereas this goes just the right distance. Obviously, the filmmakers are targeting a niche audience in that those who remember the 80's or came of age during it will find the most to appreciate in its humor.
That it was even released at a time where nearly every other movie plays it too safe and seems aimed at the 13 and under crowd is reason enough to celebrate. It's nice to see the criminally under-served audiences in their twenties and thirties catered to with a fun movie they can relate to, and as an added bonus, have it work this well. Some of the jokes are so fast and subtle even that group of viewers might have to do a double take to pick up on everything, making me think Hot Tub Time Machine is the rare comedy you can actually return to every once in a while.