Hop Into the Reagan 80s

03/26/2010 12:40 PM |

Hot Tub Time Machine
Directed by Steve Pink

The hot tub time machine in Hot Tub Time Machine is this enjoyably awful film's most original contribution to the various genres of which it partakes: bromance, gross-out comedy, road trip and, of course, time travel movies. Early on in their accidental journey from 2010 to 1986 our four straight suburban sad sacks situate themselves amidst a list of time travel antecedents from Star Trek and The Simpsons through Terminator, Groundhog Day, The Butterfly Effect and Time Cop, all of which make more sense than the one in which they're embroiled. Called away from their miserable lives after Lou (Rob Corddry) attempts suicide (or doesn't, it's never made clear), his estranged best buddies Adam (John Cusack), a freshly dumped insurance salesman, Nick (Craig Robinson), an emasculated dog-grooming center attendant, and Adam's maladjusted nerd nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) go to the ski resort where the three elders spent the best days of their lives, which is now a decrepit dump. As their weekend of partying starts looking like a bust, the four pile into their suite's magically glowing hot tub, get extremely drunk, accidentally spill Lou's illegal Russian energy drink Chernobly on the temperature dial, pass out and wake up as their younger selves in the same hot tub 24 years earlier.

All three middle-aged men are suddenly more virile and fit (better able to participate in obligatory skiing montages, among other arduous physical activities) and Jacob, though technically unborn in 1986, remains the same overweight nerd. His whole body flickers occasionally, inexplicably, but we never find out why. The pleasures to be pulled from Hot Tub Time Machine have mostly to do with its version of the 80s, particularly as experienced by the two funniest leads, deadpan expert Robinson and Corddry's explosive masochist—of whom Nick says early on: "You know how every group has an asshole friend? He's our asshole." Cusack doesn't act so much as activate an amalgam of his previous wounded, sensitive-type characters. Crispin Glover, meanwhile, makes the most of a recurring gag that involves his bellhop character almost losing an arm in a series of increasingly preposterous scenarios: jammed elevator doors, hanging from a roof, juggling chainsaws, etc. Attendant disability and amputee jokes are perhaps the least likely to offend, as they're competing with every stripe of homophobic, sexist, classist and bodily fluid humor that this type of film enables—in the first ten minutes characters are smeared with shit, sprayed with pee and puked on, a juicy cocktail to which sperm and blood will be added before film's end.

And besides, we're in the homophobic, sexist, classist and racist Reagan 80s, which initially prompts Nick, the only significant black character, to break down in tears: "How am I supposed to get a job?!" This realization that the boys' heyday was an awful period—or at least no better than the present—provides a gloomy undertone to the film's otherwise toothless checklist of decade-appropriate signifiers: Michael Jackson is alive and black, everyone does coke and sports American Apparel-ized wardrobes of neon-hued leotards with leg-warmers and headbands, David Bowie is on MTV (music is on MTV!), the internet doesn't exist yet and the guys' nemeses are a squad of ski patrol jocks convinced they're Soviet spies. Piling back into the whirlpool, three of the four time tubbers choose to face up to their present, thereby passing the film's major test of adult manhood. They're rewarded—in a finale so fantastical one wonders if they didn't die and go to heaven on the trip back—with a loony version of the present in which all the evils identified with the 80s remain buried under piles of money and privilege.

In other words, aside from its unconventional story-sparking whatsit, Hot Tub Time Machine is a lot like every other sporadically clever buddy comedy: entitled guys' self-centered world view is challenged; they come to a greater understanding of their role in a larger culture; their realization is rewarded with the reinstatement of a warm and bubbly universe that revolves around them. By presenting the choice between an impossible-to-idealize past and a downright depressing present as a very difficult one, this film rises over many of its contemporaries, most obviously The Hangover. That it does so while portraying the lives of middle-class, middle-aged men hilariously and rather earnestly as tepid, swirling pools of disappointment and self-loathing makes hopping into this hot tub time travel movie unexpectedly refreshing. Just don't stay in too long.