Back to the ’80s
Buddy comedy is dopey and vulgar, but kind of fun, just like the decade
There’s a scene near the beginning of Hot Tub Time Machine when some guys get into a hot tub and are transported back 25 years in time. “It must be some kind of hot-tub time machine,” one of them says, staring significantly at the camera, and maybe that’s all you need to know about this cheerfully vulgar comedy that’s sort of an X-rated Back to the Future, but with lots more booze.
The epiphany is enunciated by Nick (Craig Robinson), one of three friends who have made a return trip to an old ski resort where, back in 1986, they had some wild weekends. They’re all slightly down on their luck now: Nick’s singing career never panned out, Lou (Rob Corddry) is an angry failure who is also suicidal, friendless, trapped in a bad job and suffers from both halitosis and erectile dysfunction — his friends helpfully provide a list of shortcomings — and Adam (John Cusack) is a loner, recently abandoned by his girlfriend, the guy who never lived up to his potential.
They return to Kodiak Valley, scene of their glory days, to find an economically distressed town and a crumbling resort that includes a bitter, one-armed bellhop, played by Crispin Glover: Yes, it’s George McFly himself, underlining the time-travel theme, if you can call it that, and adding a note of impending bloodshed.
Back in 1986, he had two arms, and we know that, if we wait long enough, we’ll see the blood spurting from his shoulder when he finally loses one of them.
Accompanied by Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), playing the role of the guy who won’t get born if they change the past too much, the three friends hop into the hot tub and are magically sent back to the time of Ronald Reagan, big hair, Alf,
Miami Vice, cassette players, “Where’s the beef ?” T-shirts, cellphones the size of, well, phones, and what one hopes is the final Michael Jackson joke ever, although it’s a pretty good one.
The men have to make sure they do whatever it was that they did back in 1986 — break up with that girlfriend, get into that fight, sing with that band — so they don’t alter the past too much while their hot tub is being repaired. The repairman is Chevy Chase, adding another note of faded glory.
However, Hot Tub Time Machine doesn’t cleave too religiously to the idea that the past must be preserved: The characters go off on their own adventures with the devil-may-care attitude hinted at in the title. This is very much from the Snakes on a Plane school of highconcept cinema, tied to the slipshod kind of comic coarseness that distinguishes the contemporary buddy comedy. The Hangover, for instance, had a similar rough-and-tumble ethic, made up mostly of teasing, pain, profanity and homophobia. Corddry, a veteran of this kind of thing ( he was in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and What Happens in Vegas) is especially adept at the passive-aggressive ranting that is the keystone of such adolescent humour. That is to say, the butterfly effect is dealt with only insofar as the concept is invited to take part in an unnatural sex act.
Despite the time-machine plot, the f ilm is mostly about vulgarity and making fun of the 1980s, with a bit of melancholy thrown in. Cusack, one of the film’s producers, is still playing that heartbroken guy who seems too smart for the room. “We were young,” he reminisces. “ We had momentum. We were winning.” It’s a sad tone, but it doesn’t take long before a scene of, say, projectile vomiting re-establishes the fun.
The result is a hopelessly dopey f ilm that nonetheless has something of what Cusack is talking about: youth and momentum. Its jokes are alternately juvenile and disgusting, the acting is broad and calculated, the politics are regressive and the plot is incoherent. But it does have a great title.