Film Review: Hot Tub Time Machine

Proof that there is occasionally truth in advertising, 'Hot Tub Time Machine' is exactly the movie its trailers and title promise: a pretty dumb—and very funny—comedy.

It's easy to make a dumb comedy—just ask the makers of such intellectually challenged laffers as Dumb and Dumberer, Meet the Spartans and American Pie: Band Camp. But making a dumb comedy that actually inspires laughs instead of groans? Well, that requires a peculiar alchemy that's difficult for most would-be comic wizards to pull off. For a number of reasons, the '80s proved to be a high-water mark for the genre, as movies like Caddyshack, Revenge of the Nerds and the Vacation pictures set a standard that subsequent dumb comedies have attempted to live up (or should that be down?) to ever since.

One of the few recent attempts to come close to scaling those superbly silly heights is Hot Tub Time Machine, a daffy concoction directed by Steve Pink and penned by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris. The ingredients that define a good dumb comedy are all on display here: a premise that's easily summarized in the title (and probably conceived under the influence of some great hallucinogens); a plot that isn't so much a three-act narrative as it is a rough blueprint for loosely related comic episodes; an ensemble cast of crack comedians (and at least one really good straight man) that shares the spotlight; and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of goodwill that underlines all the general stupidity on display. Hot Tub Time Machine is the equivalent of a well-meaning relative who wants to crack you up with an off-color joke or two and on that level it succeeds.

As the title implies, the film's loosely constructed narrative revolves around a Jacuzzi that doubles as a portal into the space/time continuum. At least, that's what three-middle aged buddies and a tagalong twenty-something nerd discover when they wake up from a long night of tub-side partying in 2010 and find themselves in the day-glo colored year of 1986. What's more, Adam (John Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson) are all back in the bodies of their teenage selves, while their yet-to-be-born companion Jacob (Clark Duke) flickers in and out of existence as the chances of his conception grow slimmer. Acting on the cryptic advice of a mysterious hot tub maintenance man (played by ’80s dumb comedy veteran Chevy Chase), the guys decide to follow the exact same routine they did 20 years ago so that they can get back to the future with their respective realities intact. Naturally, it isn't long before they remember that they mostly hate the lives they're leading in 2010 and start to wonder whether they should take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to do things differently the second time around.

It's very easy to pick apart the movie's highly illogical take on time travel, which wouldn't pass muster in a Terminator movie or on an episode of Jacob's favorite TV show, "Stargate." But complaining about the sloppy science is completely beside the point; the hot tub time machine's only function is to serve as the set-up to the film's numerous punch lines about such topics as self-improvement, second chances and, of course, the ’80s themselves. In fact, the movie is at its weakest when it aims for some level of seriousness, as in its early passages when the filmmakers stolidly wade through the introductions to the miserable state of these characters' lives. Once that necessary but poorly handled exposition is out of the way and the quartet is trapped in 1986, the laughs start flowing in earnest.

Unlike last summer's overrated hit The Hangover, which went for the most obvious lowbrow gag every time, Hot Tub Time Machine has a welcomingly weirder sense of humor, whether it's Lou eagerly waiting to see how a guy missing his arm in 2010 (Crispin Glover, in a nice nod to Back to the Future) lost it in 1986 or Nick angrily calling his future wife—currently all of nine years old—to accuse her of cheating on him 20 years before she allegedly does. Not all the jokes land, of course; the movie unfortunately doesn't avoid the tired gay-panic gags that continue to plague most buddy comedies and an early bit of business involving a catheter would feel more at home in a Jackass sequel.

Fortunately, the cast performs even the lamest material with energy and enthusiasm; Corddry has the benefit of playing the requisite wild and crazy guy—always an audience favorite—but Robinson and Duke get a number of opportunities to shine as well. As for Cusack, he brings the right mixture of weariness and pent-up anger to his role as the self-loathing straight man just waiting to explode. (It's a shame that Pink doesn't do more to exploit the actor's own ’80s stardom, though; one moment in particular just cries out for a well-timed Say Anything reference.) It's doubtful that we'll be quoting Hot Tub Time Machine in 2030 the same way many people still can recite entire scenes from Caddyshack, but in the present day, the movie delivers on its promise of dumb fun.