Hot Tub Time Machine is a revisionist history of John Cusack. Back when he starred in teen comedies like Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing, audiences warmed to him because he was a sweet, puny underdog with a smart mouth. Stardom ensued. Now, when Cusack plays a middle-aged man who time travels back to ’86 to inhabit the body of his teenage self, that self is no longer Lloyd Dobler but a brawny, party-hearty type with a hot girlfriend. Such is the power of being on the A-list.
Or of nostalgia. Directed by Steve Pink, this buddy comedy is about three longtime friends (Cusack, Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry) who suspect their best days are behind them. It turns out they’re right. In the present, Cusack can’t maintain a stable relationship, Robinson’s wife is cheating on him, and Corddry is a rude, lewd alcoholic who just attempted suicide. Their lives at 17, as depicted here, were one long beer-soaked, coke-sprinkled, bare-boob-studded, hair-metal-scored frat party.
In other words, the titular tub takes them not to the real 1986 but to an ’80s movie, only with more drugs, blow-job jokes and self-consciousness. Hot Tub Time Machine has its funny moments. But it’s no high-concept classic like Groundhog Day, and it lacks the sharp writing of even a lesser Judd Apatow flick. With its broadly drawn characters, dated pop-culture humor and tired gags, it comes off more like the edgier Gen X edition of Wild Hogs.
The most inspired thing about the movie is its title. The hot tub is a suitably cheesy-looking one that our heroes encounter at a down-at-the-heels ski resort, where it proceeds to swirl them, willy-nilly, into the past. Time travel is such a fixture in movies that the guys are all experts on the consequences of a trip through the fourth dimension. Corddry is eager to make a fortune by “combining Twitter and Viagra.” But Cusack worries about the fate of his dweeby nephew (Clark Duke), who’s been dragged along with them, since altering the past might prevent him from being born.
The biggest problem with Hot Tub Time Machine is that its characters just aren’t that interesting. Robinson feels emasculated by his wife, and Cusack tells the nice ’80s girl he meets (Lizzy Caplan) that he’s scared of chaos, but that’s about all there is to them. Corddry is the only one of the three who gets consistent laughs, maybe because he gives his all to playing an unrepentant asshole.
In fact, the movie might have been funnier if the screenwriters had axed the “relatable” characters and just focused on Corddry and Duke, since the kid is the perfect foil for the older comedian’s evil-cherub antics. Duke’s character has the faintly robotic delivery of someone who spends too much time on Second Life. When he asks a 1986 girl if he can text her, and she replies, “Just come and find me,” he says with a sigh, “That sounds exhausting.”
Hot Tub Time Machine shares a theme with Greenberg — both are about products of the go-go decade whose lives ended up not going anywhere. But, while Baumbach’s film shows that ironic slackerdom is a deep rut indeed, Hot Tub Time Machine solves all such problems just as neatly and absurdly as Back to the Future did in 1985. Remember how time-travel shenanigans somehow turned Crispin Glover into a normal, productive member of society? He’s here to remind us, in a bit role. For all our tweeting and Viagra using, it seems we can’t escape the clichés of ’80s movies.