A film with the title Hot Tub Time Machine has no right to be as dull as the one that just came out. It can’t be overstated how much of a missed opportunity this high-concept comedy is. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a film whose only aim is to provide a nostalgically trashy trip back to 1986, a time when one could freely idolize crappy metal bands, proudly objectify women wearing neon legwarmers, or even refer to Manimal without fear of being given a wedgie. As long as it’s funny, that is. Screenwriters Sean Anders, Josh Heald, and John Morris had every opportunity to exploit the thirst for mindless kitsch that VH1’s I Love the 80s stoked to a blaze a few years back. Why they try so hard to be as inoffensive as possible and to make as little of its dizzyingly silly central conceit as they can is frankly a little perplexing.
Burnt-out high school buddies Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Lou (Rob Corddry) band together for a weekend of wistful debauchery after Lou is hospitalized for what may or may not have been a suicide attempt (Lou gunned the engine of his car in the garage while listening to Motley Crüe and passes out from the combination of noxious fumes and tunes). Along with Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), the trio drives up to the old ski resort where they used to spend happier days of snorting blow, drinking brewskies, and screwing girls. The town has changed for the worse, but thanks to the titular device, they’re able to relive those happy days in appropriately cheesy style.
At least, they would be able to if they weren’t so concerned with heeding the butterfly effect, the popular theory that dictates that a tiny change in time will effect a colossal change somewhere else in the world. If you’re looking for the point where the film’s screenwriters screwed themselves out of succeeding on what should have been a sure thing, this would be it. The guys’ need to repeat their own mistakes keeps the film’s amped-up vision of the ‘80s as a nonstop orgy as funny as an oversized cellphone and as sexy as Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” music video. Jokes about snorting coke in public and idolizing Poison (“They’re the greatest band ever!”) stop short of earning their laughs as they’re all setup and no follow-through. This forces a group of talented comedians to mug their way through half-written jokes, as when Robinson spends a painfully protracted time breaking the fourth wall after explicitly spelling to his buds how they came back in time, as if imploring the audience to laugh harder.
Being as dull as it is, Hot Tub Time Machine winds up begging the central question that it was never ready to answer: Why idolize the ‘80s yet again? The answer is dismally simple: The film isn’t for children of the ‘80s so much as it is for people who grew up listening to Reagan’s children ramble about their bygone youth. There’s no internal logic to why Crispin Glover has such a prominent role as a chainsaw-juggling bellhop, just as there’s no explanation as to why Cusack is the only real ‘80s idol among the cast’s comedians (Chevy Chase pops up as the time machine’s repair man, but apart from his starring roles in the National Lampoon’s Vacation films, the man just doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the film’s unclean nostalgia). It’s just assumed that the viewer knows who Marty McFly’s dad and the Say Anything… kid were once.
Those contextless references make it equally hard to ignore the fact that the film’s sense of kitsch-for-kitsch’s-sake humor is in all likelihood an apt portrayal of how younger viewers will think of the period. Hot Tub Time Machine melts the ‘80s down to soundbite-sized details like jerry curls, legwarmers, and a black Michael Jackson (it’s no wonder that that laundry list is so prominently featured in the film’s trailer; it’s one of the film’s only competent, unaffected jokes). It’s also a sad precursor to how people will likely remember the ‘90s and the aughts after it. Witness a depressing glimpse of things to come in the way the Black Eyed Peas’s “Let’s Get It Started” is used to jumpstart one of our protags’ mojoes. A bad trip, to say the least.