Hot Tub Time Machine

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

Larky and crazily silly, Steve Pink’s “Hot Tub Time Machine” is an agreeably nonthreatening and casually subversive take on certain staples of 1980s Hollywood comedy, from lowbrow to highbrow, with some moments of side splitting humor and funny incidents, but the film as a whole is still not quite there.
Pink is a confidante of and collaborator of the movie’s star John Cusack who also wrote two of actor’s best films: George Armitage’s “Grosse Pointe Blank” and Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity.” His only previous directing credit was “Accepted.” The story is a mélange of familiar high concept tropes, the body switching films, weird science, time bending space continuums and the raucous coming of age sex initiation films now spliced with career disappointment and regret.
At the start, the movie’s three leads are all leading mundane, desultory lives. Adam (John Cusack) is an insurance salesman whose unseen girlfriend has left him, taking most of their possessions. Nick (Craig Robinson) abandoned a promising musical career to work a series of broadly humiliating jobs. The worst of the bunch is Lou (Rob Corddry), a morose drinker whose most recent bender has landed him in the hospital. The wild card is cherubic Jacob (Clark Dane), Adam’s socially inept nephew.
Believing an intervention is needed to save their lost friend Lou, Adam and Nick arrange for a weekend getaway at a favorite ski resort. Jacob completes the foursome. Intended as a respite and chance to repair their fractured friendships, the trip suddenly takes on eerie, surreal and unaccountable touches, like the one-arm bellhop (played by the manic Crispin Glover, in the most explicit acknowledgement of the movie’s debt to the “Back to the Future” trilogy) or a Zen-like, mysterious work engineer (Chevy Chase).
The movie’s title is a takedown of the Hollywood formula and the overreliance on the deus ex machina. Sure enough, the four dive into the eponymous hot tub and are suddenly plunged down a very different kind of rabbit hole. They awaken to find themselves transported to 1986, where the three older men must relive their experiences of nearly two and a half decades earlier where various comic and violent episodes among the three transpired.
The premise allows Pink and the actors to make a lot of predictable though often funny asides and observations about that time, especially the cultural detritus. “I hated that decade,” Lou says. The stabs at social critique and political comment overreach and hit dead air, like Adam’s retort, “It was a time of Reagan and AIDS.” More promisingly, Pink has a lot of fun, like John Hughes in “Weird Science,” with the deliberately crude, almost hand drawn special effects.
It might sound churlish to ask for consistency from such material, but too often the screenwriters change and bend the specifics of the premise to fit the exigencies of the plot. The three older friends are trapped in this time vortex and perceive events through their now adult perspectives. It is their younger iterations that everyone around them sees. That is an interesting set up, but Pink and the writers smash it to smithereens, most prominently in the wholly unlikely way a beautiful, adult musical journalist (Lizzy Caplan) becomes romantically fixated on the younger Adam.
The stronger material is the way the friends must delicately retrace their own steps and actions, not deviating from them to be more heroic, thoughtful, tougher, in the event they rupture or alter their own historical destiny and that of the people around them. Lou, for instance, must relive his pummeling at the hands of a right-wing ski instructor.
The movie is getting at the very foundation of the era, the movies, the politics (there’s a very funny part of John Milius’ notorious “Red Dawn,” now of course, being remade), but in the best sections, it is trying to use the presumed idiocy of the formula to make comments about the unseemly collision of slapstick and violence. Of the movie’s many comic riffs, the funniest is the black humor regarding the severing of the bellhop’s arm. But the sexual material, especially the riffs on male sexual panic, is blunt, nasty and unfunny, especially an unusually homophobic bit involving Lou and Nick in a dare gone horrendously wrong.
“Being John Cusack” is perhaps the more accurate title in the sense of how the movie comments on the actor’s own life and career, with its origins in the works of John Hughes (“Sixteen Candles”) and the more anarchic, strange and scruffy movies he was making during the period of the movie, most notoriously Savage Steve Holland’s “Better Off Dead.” Even the sexy music journalist seems a nod to Cameron Crowe—whose “Say Anything” effectively launched the actor’s adult period.
Once the antics and the episodes slow down, “Hot Tub Time Machine” needed a certain reckoning with the characters, where they really do take stock of their lives and try to understand how the decisions they had made have haunted the rest of their lives. But instead, their failure is treated as a given, and there remains insufficient detail and specifics about how the three turned out the way they did. 
The movie’s reverse engineered fantasy-ending feels both feeble and wholly underserved. That’s symptomatic of the larger problem here of a movie that's all promises, with some delivery but not much payoff.