starring John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Chevy Chase
screenplay by Josh Heald and Sean Anders & John Morris
directed by Steve Pink
by Walter Chaw Emboldened, perhaps, by the surprisingly good The Other Guys and the surprisingly great Get Him to the Greek, I went into Steve Pink's Hot Tub Time Machine with the belief that its high-concept idea--not the time travel, but the casting of '80s icon John Cusack in a film that would return him to his decade of greatest power and influence--would be at least enough for it to function as a fairly smart nostalgia piece. Sadly, it's not very smart, nor is it very funny--and the parts of it that work do so in spite of what feels like Cusack's disdain for this period that made him famous. It's pretty standard fare, really, full of obvious jokes about changing the past and the obvious "rebellion" of not honouring the Prime Directive by introducing The Black-Eyed Peas into an eighties music scene that, for everything you could say about Falco or Flock of Seagulls, never produced anything remotely as odious as The Black-Eyed Peas. No, not even Billy Joel. In other words, Pink and his stable of writers can't seem to tell what's ironic from what isn't, meaning the whole project was doomed before it left the starting gate.
With deadpan nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) in tow, Adam (Cusack) joins Nick (Craig Robinson) on a quest to cheer up their arrested buddy Lou (Rob Corddry) after Lou's ambiguous suicide attempt. The four retreat to a well-remembered ski resort that is now, much like their lives, in disrepair, and with nothing else to do there, they jump in the titular appliance. Accidentally spilling a can of energy drink into its works, they wind up in 1986 in their younger bodies (except for Jacob, of course, though it would've been pretty funny if he materialized as an 80-year-old Sherpa woman) and endeavour to repeat all their old mistakes so as not to "butterfly effect" their not-so-hot present. Did I mention that Chevy Chase plays a mysterious Don Knotts-in-Pleasantville hot-tub repairman? The level of comedy here is pretty much right there with the energy-drink thing, finding sport in poking at the notion that we're currently obsessed with the stuff and thus thinking it topical enough to reintroduce it in the 1986 storyline as one of the things a bunch of frat guys (?) use as evidence to prove that our happy quartet is made up of spies for the Evil Empire. In a film featuring shit jokes, dog reaction shots, cheap sex-gags, and '80s-style T&A, the squandered possibility of having John Cusack star in a frat comedy involving Reagan Red Panic is the cruellest blow.
The good news is that Cloverfield's Lizzy Caplan gets the love-interest role as ROLLING STONE journalist April; the bad news is that it all leads to a Judd Apatow-approved sappy, unearned, sentimental ending that plays as insincerely as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's reassurances of "I kid, I kid" after calling someone out on sucking. See, there's the key to Hot Tub Time Machine: it has the timing and insight of a Borscht Belt comic from the 1930s. Claims to some legitimacy as a satire of '80s movies highlight that it doesn't undermine something like Back to the Future (which it appears to have as a target with the casting of Crispin Glover as a one-armed bellhop) so much as demonstrate exactly how subversive Zemeckis's picture, a better satire of its own decade than a film produced a quarter-century later, was. Identifying the self-serving fantasy-fulfillment of Marty McFly's jaunt in the past isn't a dark, hidden read of the flick but actually what gives Back to the Future the kind of legs that it's had. When Hot Tub Time Machine tries to score points by having its characters benefit overtly from their knowledge of the future, it speaks less to the venality of the present than to the venality of the filmmakers. It fails to titillate, fails to engage us in the trials of its leads (especially when it's trying hardest to humanize them), and in the end, it fails to be energetic and funny.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
MGM drops Hot Tub Time Machine onto Blu-ray in a solid 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that casts everyone in a warm, detailed (check out the wrinkles around our former teen idol's eyes), extremely vibrant environment, with only fluctuating black levels keeping the image from being showcase. Well, that and Pink's complete lack of imagination when it comes to framing. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track does a great job of reproducing the period soundtrack as well as the bombast of the Hot Tub's late-game cyclone. A trailer for the film proves to be the most substantial and substantive of the special features included on this disc. A block of "Deleted Scenes" (12 mins., HD) sports some extra tits and dog reaction shots, while four "Theatrical Promotional Spots" (6 mins. in total, HD)--"Acting Like Idiots", "Chevy Chase, the Nicest Guy in Hollywood", "Totally Rocking Outfits with Dayna Pink", and "Crispin Glover, One-Armed Bellhop"--running about 90 seconds apiece are like those things you see at the movies sandwiched between trivia cards and advertising for local golf courses. Each begins with the same clip from the film and contains soundbites from the principals. (Cusack says that he always saw this as a "comic horror movie--being trapped in an '80s teen comedy"--what I'd give to see that version of Hot Tub Time Machine.) A Digital Copy adorns an enclosed DVD while the hyped "Unrated" edition of the film (chosen through a menu option) runs just over a minute longer than, and is virtually indistinguishable from, the theatrical cut. Originally published: March 1, 2011.