Hot Tub Time Machine reviewed.

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March 25 2010 6:46 PM

Hot Tub Time Machine

This should have been great.

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Hot Tub Time Machine.
Hot Tub Time Machine

I am genuinely saddened not to have enjoyed Hot Tub Time Machine (MGM Pictures). The title is so genius! My standards were so low! All this movie needed to make me laugh were four guys in a Jacuzzi, a fuchsia/turquoise color palette, a steady stream of dumb jokes, and a little bit of heart. Unfortunately, the missing ingredient is the last.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

HTTM's comedy credentials are solid, if not distinguished. The movie was directed by Steve Pink, an old comrade of John Cusack's who co-wrote High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank. It stars '80s icon and perennial cutie-pie Cusack, The Office star and Apatow stalwart Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry, arguably the funniest Daily Show correspondent of all time. And it boasts one of those how-can-you-not-see-this conceptual titles that doubles as its own ready-made marketing campaign. (After Snakes on a Plane came out in 2006, Slate held a reader contest to come up with the best such title; you can read the gloriously stupid results here.)

Cusack, Robinson, and Corddry play three middle-aged friends who've become semi-estranged thanks to the small failures and disillusionments of adult life. These once-inseparable party animals now avoid each other's calls. Adam (Cusack) is an insurance salesman who's just been dumped by his girlfriend. Nick (Robinson) is a dog groomer, at a salon called 'Sup, Dawg?, who's undergone the apparently emasculating humiliation of being forced to hyphenate his name with his wife's. And Lou (Corddry) is a divorced, alcoholic loser who lands in the hospital after what looks like a suicide attempt (but is actually just non-goal-oriented self-destructive behavior). To cheer their pal up, Nick and Adam decide to take him on a road trip to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort where the guys spent a legendarily wild weekend 20 years before. Along for the ride is Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), a chubby 20-year-old gaming addict who for vaguely explained reasons has been living in his uncle's basement.

Their hotel in Kodiak Valley turns out to be a near-deserted dump with a surly one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover) and a dead raccoon floating in the near-empty hot tub. The guys complain to management, and a strange, enigma-spouting repairman (Chevy Chase) comes to clean and fill the tub. After a long night of tub-bound partying, they awake to find themselves in a strangely rejuvenated resort, packed with teenagers in padded-shoulder jackets and gelled asymmetrical hairdos. Poison is booked to play a gig that night, Ronald Reagan's on the TV in the lounge … in short, it's 1986 again, and the only way the boys can get back to the future is by re-enacting the exact events that took place that same night two decades ago.

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With a premise this perfect, the movie should have written itself. Time-travel capers have it all: built-in suspense (we've got to find a way out of here!), jokes (dated customs are funny!), and sentiment (growing up is tough! the choices we make matter!). But Hot Tub Time Machine seems almost willfully to squander every opportunity for greatness or even sort-of-goodness. Instead of exploring the cosmic laws of this particular temporal universe—why must they re-create the actions of that long-ago night? What will happen if they don't?—the movie is content to bundle sloppily together wan jabs at '80s culture (people didn't know about texting yet? morons!) with a very 21st-century investment in maximizing audience gross-out. Every imaginable body fluid, with the possible exception of lymph, gets its own extended sight gag, none of which are clever even by post-Farrelly-brothers standards. Here, catch this dog poo! Oops, the contents of my catheter got sprayed in your face! Whoops, projectile vomit ahoy! There is one exception to the low bar this movie sets for body comedy: A running gag involving the inevitable but perpetually deferred severing of Crispin Glover's arm is worthy of a real dumb '80s comedy. (One effect of HTTM's feeble script is to make Better Off Dead, a cult Cusack vehicle that's referenced here, seem as worthy of cinematic nostalgia as Tootsie.)

HTTM also trucks heavily in misogyny and homosexual panic of the sort that's retro in a not-cute way. A key scene—one that clearly regards itself as an outrageous high point—has Corddry's character losing a bet and being urged to fellate his buddy Nick at gunpoint as a crowd of onlookers chants "Suck! Suck! Suck!" (I feel like washing my hands even typing this description, but that's what happens.) Even the presence of Karate Kid bad guy William Zabka as the sadistic winner of the bet can't erase the bad taste left by a scene that mines mob violence and coerced sexual assault for laughs.

There are other, smaller problems with Hot Tub Time Machine: Clark Duke feels miscast as the youngest member of the cohort, and a conceit whereby the principals are played by younger actors whenever they see themselves in a mirror falls flat. But quibbles like these wouldn't matter if the movie's raunchy nonsense were animated by a spirit of generosity. Instead, even the scenes in which the four friends are ostensibly bonding seethe with hostility and aggression. It says a lot that this film's biggest laugh comes from a simple utterance of its title, spoken early on by Craig Robinson in a deadpan direct address to the camera, as he recognizes the nature of his predicament. As if in unintended tribute to the movie's time-travel theme, the best part of Hot Tub Time Machine may be the moment just before it begins, when the title flashes on-screen to a round of audience applause.

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