Friday, March 26, 2010

Movie Review: "Hot Tub Time Machine"

Originally published in the March 28 edition of The Source

The thing about a movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" is that it's pretty critic-proof.

There are doubtlessly many who will, upon hearing that title, roll their eyes and remark that it "sounds stupid" and never set foot in a theater playing the new John Cusack comedy. For others, the title will immediately invoke images of wacky time-travel shenanigans, raunchy jokes and moments of hilarious stupidity, which will cause them to immediately call up their buddies and fork over $10 on a Friday night.

I have a feeling both camps will be satisfied with their choices.

The people in the former group will still find their lives worth living even if they miss out on the sight of four grown men sucked back to the 1980s through a wormhole in their Jacuzzi. The latter will laugh hard, see it again several times, and work the film's quotes into their vocabulary alongside bon mots from "Tommy Boy" and "Animal House."And all the critic can do is sit helplessly and ask readers "What do you expect from a movie called 'Hot Tub Time Machine?'"

To be fair, the movie delivers on every one of its promises. There is a hot tub, discovered by four men on a retreat to a ski village they loved in their 20s, but which has since become run down, inhabited by bums and cats. The hot tub does indeed transport them back to 1986, where they are reverted back to their old bodies - except for the kid who wasn't born in 1986 and flickers helplessly while watching his mom drink her way toward his conception - and find themselves able to relive their heydays.

Each of the men is, of course, struggling in some way from never fully letting go of the 1980s. Adam (Cusack) has grown into a self-obsessed yuppie who lives with his young, nerdy nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) and whose girlfriend has just left him. Former aspiring rock star Nick (Craig Robinson) has put up the guitar to perform digestive operations (by hand) on dogs and commits to a marriage even though he's found out that his wife cheated on him. And Lou (Rob Cordry) stills drives fast, drinks hard and lives the party animal '80s life, until some drunken driving and air-guitar playing in his garage lead to a night in the hospital. Interpreting this as a suicide attempt, Adam and Nick take Lou back to their old stomping grounds, along with Jacob.

The group is whisked back in time and informed by a mystical/clueless hot tub repairman (Chevy Chase) that they need to live life exactly the same way to avoid altering the future. That means Nick has to sleep with a groupie, even though he's committed to his wife; Adam has to break up with his hot girlfriend, which he knows will lead to a fork in the eye; and Lou must endure a pummeling at the fists of a ski patrol officer.Of course, when old men relive their past - especially when Russian-enhanced power drinks are involved - they may decide to alter a few things, which is where some of the film's biggest laughs come in.

At its heart, "Hot Tub Time Machine" is just another riff on the raunchy frat boy comedy that gained momentum last summer with "The Hangover." But like that summer smash, "Hot Tub Time Machine's" biggest laughs come from its twists on the formula - in this case, making the frat boys 40-year-old men who have had to suffer the consequences of their actions and adding a dose of clever geekery in the form of Jacob, the film's voice of reason. Jacob can be forgiven for being a bit antsy, however. He just learned that his mom - who will give birth to him in, oh, about nine months - is a promiscuous party animal and that if things don't unfold as they should, he may never be born.

Director Steve Pink lets this all unfold with an energetic lunacy, as the characters first pay lip service to the rules before the film allows them to disregard them altogether. To say much about what unfolds would ruin many of the film's biggest laughs, particularly involving Crispin Glover as a bellhop awaiting an unfortunate fate. The film's dialogue is cleverer than I expected and there's sheer glee in the way the characters are allowed to totally trash any of the time-travel guidelines that films normally abide by.

Cusack initially seems out of place in such a raucous comedy, but there's something fitting about watching him return to the era that made him a star. He's basically the straight man, however, allowing the others to wreak havoc throughout the '80s. Robinson, most popular for his work on "The Office," is solid as usual and Duke has a nerdy charm that makes him appealing. But it's "Daily Show" alum Cordry who really gets his chance to shine as loud, obnoxious Lou. Cordry seems to be relishing his opportunity to be the film's wild man and, while he lacks the charm that lets Vince Vaughn or Bradley Cooper get away with it, he still manages to wring a few laughs out of his brazen performance, although it gets tedious in the closing stretches.

The film manages to be more clever than its title implies, but it's not always a success. A subplot between Adam and a journalist in town to cover the Poison concert is a bit weak and drags down a comedy that runs on pure energy. Chase's role is more amusing than funny and Duke's character is funny but never given much to do. The film's ending is a bit too extended - a riff on "Back to the Future's" ending that just goes on for a bit too long.

Obviously a movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" is bound to have some sex-related humor, but the film's raunchy moments actually serve to detract from the humor. For a film that can be so clever at times, Pink's tendency to keep building up shock humor and gratuitous nudity stifles some of the film's wit. I'll admit to chuckling, but the shocks are really cheap laughs that weren't needed in a movie that has some genuinely funny and well-crafted moments. Then again, the film's title probably brings to mind a certain amount of debauchery, so I guess I'd be in the minority on this.

But here I am, having written more than 1,000 words about a movie called "Hot Tub Time Machine" - more than any human being would find necessary. So I'll just leave it with this: The movie is called "Hot Tub Time Machine." You know whether or not you're going to see it just based on the title. And it is my duty as a critic to inform you that whatever you decide, you'll be happy with your decision.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.