Hot Tub Time Machine. 100 mins. R. Directed by Steve Pink. Written by Josh Heald and Sean Anders & John Morris. Starring John Cusack, Clark Duke, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Chevy Chase.
There's a quote from This is Spinal Tap that goes, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." True words, and with such a ridiculously, yet endearingly, literal title like Hot Tub Time Machine, one expects the filmmakers to straddle that line. This is especially so, given the fact that a respectable actor like John Cusack signed on to star and produce. Unfortunately, however, Hot Tub Time Machine too often falls on the stupid side of things - a result of sloppy direction, rushed production, and a script that needed about five or six more rewrites. The concept is there and the cast is game, but it just isn't clever (or funny) enough to recommend it.
Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry play a group of forty-something friends in a mid-life rut, who after Corddry's Lou attempts suicide, decide to head to Colorado, with Cusack's nephew (Clark Duke) in tow, to rekindle their friendship and the fun of their youth. It's there that they discover the titular hot tub, which, after a wild bender one night and an accidental spill of some Russian energy drink, turns into a time machine and sends them all back to 1986 for another chance to get things right.
The 1986 setting allows the filmmakers to make a bunch of '80s jokes and incorporate beloved '80s tunes as an underscore to every scene. But the writers mistake simply making a reference to '80s nostalgia as the same thing as writing comedy. It's one thing to show a clip from Alf and rely on that for laughs - that's easy. What's harder is doing something original with the '80s and offering a comical critique of that era. Back to the Future did that so well with the '50s, and though it's unfair to compare all time travel movies to that classic, Hot Tub Time Machine certainly invites the comparison by cribbing so many scenes (and rules of time travel) directly from it. Heck, they even cast Crispin Glover (George McFly, himself) in a significant supporting role.
Watching Hot Tub, you sense that MGM got the script, realized they had another potential Hangover on their hands, and rushed the movie into production. Scenes feel like they were being rewritten a minute before shooting, with little to no thought given to how those scenes would mesh with the rest of the movie. There's a half-baked attempt at a love story between Cusack's Adam and a traveling reporter played by Mean Girls' Lizzy Caplan that never really goes anywhere and just wastes time. Chevy Chase also pops up occasionally as a hot tub repairman, but the movie has no idea what to do with him. Does he know that the hot tub is a time machine? Is he from the future? Why does he randomly appear? And, most importantly, why isn't he given anything funny to say or do? I don't think the filmmakers have answers to any of these questions.
Hot Tub is crude and often unlikeable, especially when our heroes engage in extreme cocaine snorting, which, to be fair, befits the '80s setting. The breakout character on the page, no doubt, is Corddry's Lou. He gets the best lines, and is the most recklessly funny character, but, as played by Corddry, he just came across as annoying. I liked Corddry on The Daily Show, but have hated him in almost every movie I've seen him in. The guy just rubs me the wrong way. I actually think Clark Duke steals the movie. Duke had an Internet series of comedic shorts with Michael Cera prior to starring in Hot Tub, and he's got Cera's same expert comedic timing. Duke plays the sole voice of reason in the movie, and it's funny because everything else around him is so unreasonable.
Steve Pink, who co-wrote High Fidelity with Cusack, doesn't have any discernible visual style, and that's a shame because the set-up of the movie does lend itself to visual imagination. But the hot tub time travel sequences are sloppy and amateurish, with very little creativity involved apart from the concept itself. The direction is just another rush job in a movie full of them. That is it's downfall, and the main reason why the pop cultural impact of Hot Tub Time Machine is more along the lines of the forgettable Dude, Where's My Car than a breakout hit like The Hangover.