Steve Pink´s Hot Tub Time Machine has a title and some goofy charm, and little else. The trailers promised “The Hangover meets Back to the Future”, but what the film actually delivers is surprisingly (given the premise) lazy and bland and while it is frequently amusing, it´s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is.
Hot tub + Russian energy drink = time machine. Sure, OK. It send insurance salesman Adam (John Cusack), dog groomer and ex-singer Nick (Craig Robinson, from the US version of The Office), potentially-suicidal asshole Lou (former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry), and Adam´s nerdy nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) back in time 20 years, to 1986. We know it´s the 80s because Alf and Ronald Reagan are on the TV, and because Michael Jackson is still black. Original!
So this group of four, their lives haven´t exactly turned out how they wanted, and now they find themselves at a big turning point in their high school-era lives, as their high school-era selves. This is when Adam broke up with his girlfriend, Lou got beat up by a ski instructor, and Nick, uh, had sex with a girl.
We see Cusack, Robinson, and Corddry, but when they look in the mirror, they now see the younger versions of themselves. How does this work exactly – can they go back into the future? Will they leave the young bodies in the past? You can try to confront the logistics of a time travel in a movie – and have some fun in doing so – or you can just ignore it completely and hope the audience goes with the flow, which is what happens here. Jacob wasn´t born yet, but he´s along for the ride, as his normal self, for reasons the filmmakers barely attempt to explain or acknowledge.
So, the guys can have some fun and maybe change the course of the lives, right? Wrong. The mystical hot tub repairman (Chevy Chase) warns them of the dangers of the butterfly effect: they can´t do anything differently, or the future could face dire consequences. This is the plot of the movie: they´re supposed to accept their fate, find a way to repair the time machine, and get back to their miserable future lives, while not having any butterfly effects in the past. No fun for them, no fun for us; a breezy comedy like this should be anything but boring, but without much of a narrative for us to grab hold of, that´s just what Hot Tub becomes.
Director Pink previously co-wrote High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank, two of the highlights on Cusack´s recent filmography. He should´ve wrote this one, too, because Hot Tub Time Machine takes an obscure premise with some potential, adds zero narrative drive, minimal story arc, and just runs it into the ground. Hell, it doesn´t live up to the title.
The cast is a problem, too. Cusack is as bland and uninteresting here as he´s ever been, and has little rapport with his costars. Duke and Robinson are fine, but Corddry runs away with the movie as an obnoxious, overgrown fratboy, and he couldn´t be less likable. The film rewards him – and the others – with an ending that is entirely undeserved.
An ending which, of course, invalidates the film that preceded it (if things turned out that way, wouldn´t they have never gone back in time in the first place?) Time travel movies always have paradoxes, but they´re much more apparent with the lazy writing here.
Not that the film is a total waste; there is some charm, and some laughs, including a running gag involving a bellhop played by Crispin Glover. But while I was watching the film I was constantly struck with the realization that this was far less fun than it ought to be.
Irony: Hot Tub Time Machine lampoons dorky 80s films, but isn´t as good as the dorky 80s films John Cusack actually made (Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, The Sure Thing, et al.)