If nothing else, Hot Tub Time Machine has saved us from a remake of Back to the Future. There’s no way to send a 2010s Marty McFly back to see his parents in the 80s without going over the same ground that John Cusack et al go over in this film. But thankfully Hot Tub Time Machine is more than just a raunchy riff on Back to the Future (although it quite unabashedly is that) – it’s a funny, deceptively smart movie. And it’s a major launching pad for Rob Corddry.
The premise is simple and stupid – when Corddry’s character has a meltdown in the present day his friends drag him (and Cusack’s nephew, played by Clark Duke) back to the scene of their 80s young men triumphs, a rocking ski resort. It turns out that the ski resort is just as dilapidated and pathetic as their middle aged lives, but one night of drunken revelry in the resort’s hot tub (along with a spilled can of weird Russian energy drink) gives the guys another chance at reliving their glory days as they’re returned to 1986.
It took me a few minutes to warm up to Hot Tub Time Machine, but once the film gets the guys back into the 80s it starts doing stuff that I love – namely playing with time travel conventions. The quartet at first think that they have to relive 1986 exactly as it was the first time, but they’re too lazy, dumb and selfish to pull that off. Along the way the movie has fun with paradox, time loops and even the most basic morality of time travel. And best of all the movie doesn’t turn into some kind of boring fetishization of the 80s; director Steve Pink fills the frame with enough 80s signifiers to let you know when you are, but it’s not a non-stop parade of winks and nostalgia nods (which is especially nice for me as I have little love for the decade).
The circumstances surrounding the time travel is dumb, but the character work is really smart. It’s tough to make a movie like this – where characters have to act in ways that are deluded, destructive or foolish – while keeping those characters feeling honest and real, but Pink’s cast makes it seem easy. Cusack has the least to do; catapulted back to the 80s he’s mostly morose and learns some perfunctory lessons from a super hip Spin reporter (played by the delightful Lizzy Caplan; I would have liked to see her get more comedic moments, but it’s not to be). But I’m not complaining, because that gives the rest of the cast plenty of room to shine.
While Clark Duke may be mostly a plot motivator – his deep and abiding interest in being born one day keeps the story moving forward – he still gets to be plenty funny, and in a role that could have been a very boring geek stereotype but isn’t. Craig Robinson is wonderful as maybe the only decent guy in the story; while everybody else is concerned about reliving their glory days or self-preservation, Robinson’s character dreads the idea that doing 1986 all over again means he’ll have to sleep with a woman who isn’t his wife. It’s sweet and funny and allows the character to be the only real moral compass in the film.
But in the end it’s Corddry’s show. His Lou is a character who should, by all rights, be irritating and despicable. Yet somehow Corddry keeps this moronic, self-absorbed, shallow prick just this side of likable. That’s an incredible feat, one that’s rarely achieved – how many movies of the 80s alone contain ‘comedy’ characters who are just hateful? Corddry’s Lou goes into a very select club of characters like Belushi’s Bluto from Animal House - characters you love despite themselves. From trying to get into a threeway with Clark Duke to pissing in his own mouth to generally being an obnoxious, idiotic asshole, Lou dares you to like him. Since the entire movie is essentially Lou’s story it’s a good thing that Corddry can pull it off.
There’s something slight about Hot Tub Time Machine that I really enjoyed; instead of getting caught up in zany plot machinations the film allows the characters to just sort of bounce around in 1986. There’s the barest backbone of a plot line, with each of the characters having their own ‘mission’ in 86, and with just enough set up to make for some very funny pay offs in the third act, but generally Hot Tub Time Machine feels like a hangout movie fused with a high concept comedy. Watching TV commercials for the film I’m seeing lots of deleted scenes show up, especially in a sequence where Corddry and Robinson hang out in a bar; I’d be really happy to watch a version of this movie with plenty of that stuff edited back in, just to get a chance to hang out with these guys and laugh some more.
In fact the biggest problems with the movie aren’t unfunny patches or bad plot points, it’s a couple of missed opportunities. Chevy Chase is mostly wasted as a mystical hot tub repairman, while Colette Wolfe, playing Duke’s drunken future mom, also gets short shrift. Clark Duke’s funny enough to have been given at least one big set piece of his own, but he’s denied. Still, other opportunities get hit nicely: Crispin Glover, providing a small wink to Back to the Future just by showing up, is very funny as a bellhop destined to lose one of his arms. Also very funny, and another wink to the 80s, is William Zabka as a douchey yuppie who forces Corddry and Robinson to go beyond the bounds of normal male bonding.
Raunchy without ever being too creepy or gross, Hot Tub Time Machine keeps the laughs coming without pandering. A real opportunity for some charismatic actors and comics to do their thing, Time Machine feels like a movie that pays off on revisits, and like the kind of film that holds laughs that only get unlocked on a third viewing. I’m looking forward to watching it again.
8.5 out of 10