I wouldn’t recommend doing so, but comparing a movie like Adventureland and Hot Tub Time Machine presents an interesting dynamic in one’s perspective on the 1980s. Greg Mottolla unearthed some very poignant, bittersweet ’80s nostalgia, which brought a lot of us in a particular age demographic back to an emotionally confused, heartsick, romantic time of our lives. Steve Pink’s Hot Tub Time Machine, on the other hand, just reminds us of how embarrassing that decade was. It’s great to think back to the leg warmers, and scrunchies, the moon boots, and the hot pink neon of the Reagan era in our minds, but seeing it on screen, exaggerated to the extent that it is in HTTM didn’t make me nostalgic for the ’80s; it made me glad as hell that I’m no longer stuck in them. Jesus: What a cultural train-wreck of a decade. When John Cusack remarks in interviews that the ’80s were a “dark period” in American history, he wasn’t fucking kidding. If I had a hot tub time machine, and I could do anything I wanted to do with it, I’d use it to avoid the fucking 1980s.
Hot Tub Time Machine is a good movie. It’s not great; it’s not bad. It’s amusing, but not hilarious. It’s like The Hangover or Old School minus all the hyper-fueled antics. It’s dumb, but not so dumb as to offend or annoy. It doesn’t miss the jugular, so much as it never really aims for it. It falls a little flat at times, and the best jokes are in heavy rotation in the trailers. Indeed, it’s a lot like a typical ’80s comedy: Empty, illogical, a little cheesy, and very easy to watch, although it’s much closer to the Steve Holland ’80s comedy than to the John Hughes variety.
John Cusack stars as Adam, a self-involved insurance salesman whose wife has just left him for unexplained reasons. His nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), lives in the basement, where his existence mostly revolves around his Second Life on the computer. Meanwhile, Nick (Craig Robinson) is a former musician who works in a dog-washing parlor, having apparently given up on life a long time ago. Lou (Rob Corddry) is a divorced, alcoholic loser, living in the Glam Metal past and drinking his life away, almost literally when he nearly kills himself boozing in his idling car inside a closed garage. His near-death experience brings the three estranged best friends back together, and along with Jacob, they return to the ski lodge in which they spent so much of their drug-and-alcohol tinged teens. They jump in a hot tub, drink themselves silly, and wake up 20 years in the past inside their old bodies, where they are given an opportunity to redo a formative weekend in their lives.
The time travel element of Hot Tub Time Machine isn’t very well explored (sorry sci-fi geeks), except that the threesome agrees that they need to duplicate everything they did during their original weekend there in 1986: Fuck a random woman, break up with a girlfriend, play with a band on stage, etc., so that Jacob’s future life isn’t altered or extinguished. The way it all plays out is fairly predictable, but Hot Tub Time Machine is a comfort comedy. It’s not meant to be challenging; it’s meant to make a few ’80s references, play around a little with future knowledge, and defeat the villains, here amusingly characterized by a couple of Commie-hating teenagers straight out of Red Dawn. It succeeds, but it doesn’t overachieve or blow you away with humor. In fact, it wastes the casting of Chevy Chase, who plays a daffy time-travel shamen slash fix-it man. Even Crispin Glover — who is there as an obvious nod to Back to the Future — is not really put to much use, other than to carry a semi-amusing running gag to the finish line.
The weirdest element about Hot Tub Time Machine, however, is Cusack, who obviously came of age in ’80s teenage comedies. Seeing him back there, even now as a 40-something year old guy, is a little unsettling. There are some obvious nods to his old work, including a Lloyd Dobler overcoat, a shout-out to “two dollars,” a small “dare-to-be-great” moment, and even a Curtis Armstrong pep speech before the big showdown. But seeing him now in that era is bittersweet. You want to see Lloyd Dobbler, or Lane Meyer, or Hoops McCann come to life on screen with Diane Franklin and a saxophone, but all you see is an older John Cusack shell parading around a 2010 movie set in 1986.
All I could think was: What the hell happened to Lloyd Dobbler, and how did that guy end up in 2012 or Must Love Dogs? Where did all that time go, and how did we manage to waste so much of it? And that, folks, is why you should never try to be thoughtful about a meaningless, enjoyably escapist comedy. You just end up depressing yourself.