ROB MCEWAN / METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER STUDIOS INC.
The defining moment of “Hot Tub Time Machine,” the new comedy directed by Steve Pink, comes right after the title apparatus has done its work, sending the four protagonists back in time (duh) to 1986. What follows is the obligatory leg of any time-travel movie where the characters have to discover that they have, yes, really traveled through time. As the realization sinks in and the four leads (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry and Clark Duke) fly into a tizzy trying to figure out what sort of supernatural force could have done this, Robinson turns solemnly to the camera and says, “Must be some sort of (dramatic pause) ... hot tub time machine.”
This is a movie that asks the audience to play along with its own goofiness. By acknowledging the ridiculousness of the premise time and again, it frees itself to be as silly as it likes — which turns out to be quite silly. The twists are easy to spot, many parts are vague and unexplained, and some jokes fall flat. In fact, some whole story lines do too — there’s a squirrel that somehow gets involved and far overstays its welcome; Chevy Chase’s character seems like a completely useless mash-up of Don Knotts from “Pleasantville” and Christopher Lloyd from “Back to the Future.” But the enthusiasm, glee and self-deprecating charm of the ensemble make up for it.
Probably the weirdest moment of this entire bizarre film is the moment where the audience realizes that it has become emotionally invested in “Hot Tub Time Machine.” That’s right, you read that correctly. The moment is more surreal than the man in a bear costume fellating Robinson in the hot tub or that blasted squirrel ruining Denver’s famous comeback in the AFC Championship Game against the Browns (that’s “The Drive” to those of you who are uninitiated).
Adam (Cusack, the only actor in the film capable of carrying a love story) has become self-absorbed and lonely in the present. At least, that’s what the characters keep telling us; during the scant sequence set in the corporeal 2010 world before the fun starts, we see no evidence for any real life/character, just a mopey montage. But when catapulted back to his youth, Cusack finds in the past a woman who he missed the first time: April, played by Lizzy Caplan (whose drollness has previously been showcased in her turn as Janis Ian in “Mean Girls”).
Playing it straight in the midst of all the male-fantasy wackiness, she manages to stand out by adding a different kind of humor: dry wit instead of blowjob jokes and pop culture references. While oral sex and Michael Jackson jokes can carry a movie pretty far, without Caplan and Cusack “Hot Tub” would have faltered on the finish line.
Anyone who is even considering going to see a movie called “Hot Tub Time Machine” knows what is about to happen. It’s an entertaining frolic through the ‘80s and a fun take on the buddy/time travel genre. If you go in prepared to play along and take it for what it is, you’ll have a good time.