You’d expect a title like Hot Tub Time Machine to be a gag from a so-so episode of 30 Rock. No screenwriters are crazy enough for such a concept – unless, of course, they gleefully embrace the absurdity of their premise. The best thing I can say about Hot Tub Time Machine is that it works. The leads have ample chemistry, and gross-out gags are funny because they’re presented with context.
Lou (Rob Corddry) sets the story in motion. An obnoxious alcoholic, he lands in the hospital after filling his garage with car fumes. Old friends Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson) suggest a ski resort reprieve, as they think Lou is suicidal. With Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) along for the ride, the guys get fucking hammered in the titular hot tub, waking up in 1986. Complete with a Poison concert, it’s a memorable day from their past. Adam, Nick, and Lou appear to others as their 1986 selves, so they have a chance to correct the mistakes they’ve made. Jacob, on other hand, hasn’t been conceived, so changing the past could unmake his existence. It’s like Back to the Future, except with binge drinking and bukake jokes.
Director Steve Pink worked with Cusack on High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank (a personal favorite), so he’s no stranger to immature man-children revisiting their past. His workmanlike approach is a welcome counterpoint to the inane plot. Of the four time travelers, Lou is the clear stand-out. In the hands of a manic actor like Cordrry, Lou gets boldly trashed with uninterrupted zeal. He berates anyone who interrupts his plans, however infantile, with hilarious profanity-laced one-liners. Cusack’s approach is more subdued – he gently mocks the angst-laden comedies that made him a star. Familiarity with his early work engenders clever meta-jokes. The always-welcome Craig Robinson continues his tradition of being a funny supporting performer (someone give this man a starring role, amirite?). The same goes for the Crispin Glover as a Phil the one-armed bellhop. His inward weirdness gives depth even if his character solely exists for a gross-out gag. Clark Duke’s Jacob exists as a foil, and has the thankless task of pushing the plot, such as it is, forward. It follows the movie as its best when it resists the easy nostalgia jokes, and focuses on the finely-tuned central performances.
What surprises me about Hot Tub Time Machine is its subtlety. Screenwriters Josh Heald, John Morris, and Sean Anders give their characters distinct personalities. Quirks feel authentic, choices believable. Amongst the belly laughs, there’s even some honest-to-god character development and, I shit you not, an element of sadness. For a movie with such a stupid title, its sneaky intelligence is wholly surprising.