By Walter Hickey
“Hot Tub Time Machine” is the latest in a string of self-aware comedies, which takes advantage of a ludicrous concept, a supremely talented cast and thorough execution — the perfect recipe for a box office hit. It’s important to acknowledge that this film is successful only as pure comedy. Despite how accomplished it is at making the audience laugh, “Hot Tub Time Machine” is not a film that you’ll show your kids and say, “This was one of the greatest films of my generation.” And yet, it’s important to recognize “Hot Tub Time Machine” as a comedy film that succeeds.
The film follows from — but is not derivative of — films like “The Hangover.” It has an outrageous concept, all-star comedy cast and great writing, like other recent comedies such as “Anchorman,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Dodgeball.” They are hardly great films, but are still entertaining time after time, and given such precedence, I would say that “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a great movie.
The beginning is brief enough to make way for the time-traveling comedy, but long enough to get thorough the relatively two-dimensional pictures of the characters. Adam (John Cusack, 2012) is emerging from a long string of earnest but awful relationships and is ready for a much deserved break. The opportunity comes when Lou (Rob Corddry, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”), who is Adam’s former best friend, a raging alcoholic and general animal, poisons himself with carbon monoxide while on a bender. Interpreting this as a suicide attempt, Adam and Nick (Craig Robinson, “The Office”), a devotedly married man and unsatisfied worker, decide to take Lou to a the ski resort they visited in the ’80s so they can keep an eye on him as he recovers from the incident. They bring along Adam’s nerdy nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke, “Greek”).
Although the setup of the comedy is quick, the characterization was surprisingly deep for a film entitled “Hot Tube Time Machine.” Naturally, once the hot tub switch is hit, the Russian Energy drink containing the magical ingredient is spilled, the movie gets moving. The boys are back in the ’80s, at a critical weekend in their lives, and, of course, everyone’s inexplicably back in their 1980 bodies.
They time travel to the weekend that Adam broke up with the “Great White Buffalo” of his life, the girl he convinced himself two decades later was the one. Nick is about to perform in the biggest concert of his life, a make it or break it chance for the future of his music career. Lou supposedly gets into a fight with several ski patrol guys, which leads him to discover who his real friends are. Over the course of the weekend the first time around, Adam got stabbed with a fork, Nick bombed miserably and gave up on his music, and Lou was abandoned by his friends. Now that they have a second chance, they are determined to change the course of these unfortunate events. While the boys are trying to fix old mistakes, Jacob is desperately trying to get back to the future because he was conceived on that same weekend at the resort.
I’ve heard much debate over who held the movie together. While Cusack’s initial role as the straight man in a relatively crazy set of brothers was magnificently played, Corddry certainly cranked up the crazy, but to ignore Robinson’s sanguine performance as a conflicted man who’s caught up in something he just doesn’t want to deal with would be a mistake. Robinson’s performance was certainly the most entertaining. After all, any film climax that involves Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl” is a definite selling point.
“Hot Tub Time Machine” also has scenes that really make the price of the ticket worthwhile. Cusack’s acting really stands out, especially after his second attempt at the breakup goes awry. Equally funny is a scene in which Corddry and Robinson, recognizing that the NFL playoff game being played is the legendary game which included “The Drive,” begin taking the bar for what they’ve got with some pretty un-characteristically lucky predictions. I would also say that whenever Duke’s character shares the screen with his mother is extremely entertaining, given the portrayal of Lizzy Duke’s proud promiscuity in the film.
The reason that this movie succeeds is largely that it is completely aware of the fact that the title and critical MacGuffin are a hot tub which is also a time machine. The writers understand that. The audience understands that. The film doesn’t pretend to be the “Terminator” series with its convoluted timelines; it avoids even the attempt in “Back to the Future” at flux capacitors, and unlike “Lost,” there is nothing to be seen of attempts to explain divergent timelines. There is just a hot tub, and when a Russian energy drink gets spilled onto the electric components, people return to 1980 in their old bodies. If somebody decides to see the movie and cannot get past that point, they will not enjoy the movie.
If you’re looking for a film that entertains in the same vein as “The Hangover” or “Anchorman,” check out “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Talented writers and great comedians advertise this movie as one of the diamonds in the rough. It rises above the mediocre screwball bro-bonding comedies (I’m looking at you, “Year One”) to be a really good film, but don’t go into the theater expecting to see our generation’s “The Godfather” or “Star Wars.” If you go in expecting a hot tub time machine, this film will absolutely exceed your expectations, and certainly surprise you as well.