Steve Pink and John Cusack, the director and producer/star of Hot Tub Time Machine, have partnered on two stellar comedies about men who turn adolescent fantasies into paying jobs and thus never quite have to grow up. In writing both 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank and 2000’s High Fidelity, Pink crafted sympathetic roles that accentuated Cusack’s charms, slyly rearranging his slightly deranged and sometimes obsessive persona.
Hot Tub Time Machine begins with what seems an opposite premise — looking at the regrets of the men who did choose to grow up — and here Pink reveals an unsteadier hand. Unable to exploit consistently his first rate cast, he never gets at the compelling question at the heart of the movie: what happens to drug- and booze-hounds who buy into grown-up rules, then confront abject failure 20 years later? The movie’s non-answer includes only sometimes hilarious raunchy humor, delivered via disconnected set pieces and batches of juvenile dialogue.
The movie’s flabby storytelling begins with its opening sequences, which scurry unashamedly through the set-up. When Lou (Rob Corddry) accidentally on purpose tries to kill himself, Adam (Cusack) is inspired to drag him on a nostalgic weekend to a site from their youthful glory days. Rounded out by Adam’s unwitting nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) and another friend, Nick (Craig Robinson), the group walks through a series of expendable scenes, including Craig’s gross-out humiliation at the hands of a constipated dog, before they arrive at the now run-down Kodiak Ski Lodge.
Only when they decide to drown their sorrows in the eponymous hot tub does the movie pick up. As the transition to 1986 ends with a screaming Nick running in terror from a slope-side café full of big hair (male and female), Day-Glo ski suits, and cassette recorders, finally, the comedy seems ready to begin.
That said, some of the ’80s jokes (like the legwarmers) are so old they’re mummified. Others, like the ski patrol mouthing paranoia about the USSR are both funny and faintly chilling to anyone who lived through the period, although the Hangover fans who comprise the target demographic won’t remember a time when news organizations reported Reagan’s Star Wars initiative with straight faces. But the movie is funniest when it relies on the cast’s charisma and comic timing. In the bathroom-and-mirrors sequence where the gone-to-seed losers confront their svelte ’80s incarnations, Cusack, Corddry, and Robinson wordlessly embody the agony of confronting both their lost promise and the existential terror of adult banality.
When Pink trusts these talents, he can transform adolescent grotesquerie into prolonged comic nightmares. The hubris of betting on a sure thing reaches new heights in the sequence where Lou, armed with encyclopedic knowledge of football past, joyously accepts a bet that would mandate oral sex with Nick were he to lose. Of course, he loses. But even as the satisfying resolution melds crudity and laughter, the scene’s real payoff is the realization of how the quartet’s presence in 1986 is starting to change history. Still, most of the R-rated comedy relies on a dull parade of impromptu evacuations of bodily fluids, crude verbalizations and enactments of the sexual act, and the mystical male rituals of showing affection without in any way suggesting homosexual desire (and then being extra-gruff and macho if one does).
The same gap between intelligent comedy and collapse of imagination drives the multiple references to ’80s movies and, in particular, to Back to the Future. (For one example, Crispin Glover/George McFly is cast as a misanthropic bellhop who sustains a baroque, movie-long gag about how he lost the arm in 1986.) By the end of the movie, however, homage has collapsed into rip-off. The scenes where Nick’s band rocks 1986 with a 21st-century hit, and coitus interruptus threatens the very conception of Jacob (whose on-screen image then flickers and fades in imitation of Marty’s) lead to an ending of facile wish fulfillment, where broken relationships, stalled careers, and drunken anomie resolve into unearned emotional and financial harmony.
Even as it follows this formula, Hot Tub Time Machine frequently feels like it’s been conceived by gag-writers who didn’t actually experience the ’80s, but instead, have watched a few too many Judd Apatow movies on too many girl-free afternoons. Intelligence, wit, and extreme raunchiness are not mutually exclusive, but the combination requires nuance and discipline as well as a command of movie history and the friendship of one iconic actor. Otherwise, as Jacob says of hooking up without Internet access, it’s just all too exhausting.