The last two times John Cusack collaborated with his longtime buddy Steve Pink, the results were Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) and High Fidelity (2000), which they both helped write. Three other guys wrote Hot Tub Time Machine (starring Cusack and directed by Pink), so the movie doesn’t hit the heights of the previous two classics. It’s more of an affable romp, The Hangover by way of The Wedding Singer: three guys having a wild and crazy night back in the ‘80s, though they began the night in 2010. As advertised, Hot Tub Time Machine involves a hot tub that becomes a time machine, sending disgruntled fortysomethings Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson back to 1986, along with Cusack’s 20-year-old nephew Clark Duke, who wasn’t even born yet.
In truth, Hot Tub Time Machine is the sort of “high concept” low-budget comedy that might’ve been made back in ‘86; it would share a video-store shelf with Bachelor Party and Where the Boys Are ‘84. As such, it’s not terribly ambitious. It seems to hang its narrative on two or three killer scenes; a lot of the rest is filler. The filler is often amusing, though, since these guys are innately funnier than were the lads in The Hangover. The guys are spirited to a ski lodge on a particularly eventful night for them in ‘86, and they determine to do everything the same — any divergence might lead to disaster in the future. Part of the fun is in how quickly they break their pact and set about rewriting their past.
I imagine any serious time-travel nitpicker who thinks about the plot for more than a minute will judge the whole thing implausible. But that’s not really the point. For Cusack and Pink, this is kind of the conclusion of their trilogy of films about the depressed Cusackian hero escaping into past simplicity. Cusack’s presence here, along with Crispin Glover as a bellhop, Chevy Chase as a mysterious repairman, and even Karate Kid villain William Zabka as a mustachioed sleazeball, takes some of us back to the land of leg warmers, MTV and cheesy comedies. As per tradition, Cusack falls for someone with smarts and great taste in music (Lizzy Kaplan), while Corddry and Robinson try to reset their disappointing lives to the dismay of Clark Duke, who fears all this divergence will erase him from history.
Hot Tub Time Machine occasionally feels as though it has more on its mind, but it’s best when sitting with the three old friends, who have decades of shared experiences, in-jokes (their whispered “The Great White Eskimo” never gets old) and resentments stored up. It’s a comfortable and ultimately comforting film; its message is “embrace the chaos,” and the heroes, like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, are looking for “a dare-to-be-great situation.” The movie doesn’t really dare to be great; it settles for being sometimes-raunchy post-Apatow fluff, with a better cast (and less nudity) than it would’ve had in 1986. It gets a pass from me — there’s always something going on, the funny bits are really funny — but from the guys who gave us High Fidelity and especially Grosse Pointe Blank, it’s something of an underachievement.