Hot Tub Time Machine is the kind of movie that you like, knowing full well that it's not very good. It comes, first of all, with perhaps the best title of the year (or the worst, depending on what you require from a movie title). There is no trickery to the moniker--there's not some metaphorical hot tub that serves as a whimsical reminder of gentler times and loves lost. Nope, it's the story of four men who travel back in time via a hot tub.
Back in the day, Adam (John Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry), and Nick (Craig Robinson) were best friends. Now, they're varying degrees of unhappy, and Lou, in the process of an awesome air drumming break, accidentally almost kills himself. Adam and Nick decide to take Lou back to their favorite lodge from their teenage years, a reminder of when times were good; Adam brings along his twentysomething loser nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) for the ride. But the old lodge has become a dump, and the trip looks like a huge mistake until their drunken night in a short-circuiting hot tub somehow opens up a hole in the space-time continuum and drops them into the lodge, circa 1986.
Cusack co-produced the picture, which is directed by his writing partner Steve Pink (the pair worked together on High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank). Pink's visual style isn't terribly sophisticated--his game plan seems to be to look every joke right in the eye and shoot in as bland and colorless a style as possible, resulting in a cheap, chintzy, sitcom feel, as well as a herky-jerky sense of narrative momentum (it seems to stop and go and stop again).
As if any of that matters--is it funny? Yes, but not as funny as you'd like it to be. It's full of comic heavy hitters, and sure, all of them get some laughs. Corddry smartly plays his bitter, self-destructive drunk almost entirely straight, and mostly nails him ("It's called male bonding," he informs Jacob, who hesitates to disrobe and get into the hot tub. "Have you even seen Wild Hogs?"). Duke's timing is sharp, and though Cusack is basically grinding in the same sad-sack rut he's been working the past decade or so, he lends some weight and credibility to the film, and develops a nice bit of chemistry with the always-welcome Lizzy Caplan. But the real star of the show is Craig Robinson, who, having unapologetically stolen scenes in The Office, Knocked Up, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, bursts through here as a full-on comedy star. He's funny, he's likable, he's charming (I can't think of many other actors who could pull of that sobbing sex scene), he even sings well. It's his coming out party, cinematically speaking.
But the film can't find a consistent comic voice, and ends up coming off as dumber than it should be. The verbal and character stuff has such potential, and works so well when it's indulged, that the dopey, gross-out stuff and slouchy physical humor feels like a waste of the considerate talent involved. It's just laziness at work; there's interesting stuff happening in, say, the scene where Adam and Nick visit Lou in the hospital, and surely they could have mined the personalities in the room to come up with a funnier button for the scene than Lou inexplicably spraying piss all over them. That's the kind of stuff you expect in a Sandler movie, not one from the Grosse Pointe Blank guys.
To be sure, there's good stuff in the movie. Crispin Glover is gloriously unhinged early on, and then the object of a deliciously funny running joke. You can see the Lou-Jacob payoff coming a mile away, but it's still a good one. And the shout-outs to '80s movies (from the Zabka-esque turtlenecked villains to the plentiful Back to the Future references) are affectionate and enjoyable. But I kept waiting for the picture to catch fire, to take advantage of its resources and strike the comic gold it seems capable of. So chalk it up as a missed opportunity, though I'll admit to feeling like a bit of a schmuck for complaining that the humor in a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine isn't a little bit smarter.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.