Does ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ Work?

Get ready to head back to the ‘80s – in more ways than one – with the most self-explanatory movie ever made, “Hot Tub Time Machine.” An ensemble R-rated comedy straight out of the Day-Glo Decade, “Hot Tub” takes a group of estranged friends to their former sky-town haunt and into an ethereal Jacuzzi that sends them back to “Winterfest 1986,” a day which holds great meaning in all of their (since gone downhill) lives. A lop-sided script and more than a few missed punches keep this one from being worth a second viewing, but there are enough chuckles to make traveling back in time a good waste of two hours.

After their friend Lou (Rob Cordry) winds up in the hospital, both Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson) decide an emergency weekend retreat is in order, and they bring along Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) to their favorite destination, Kodiak Valley, for some serious partying. Unfortunately the recession has hit the town hard, leaving the bored quintet in their room to improvise a good time in the suite’s hot tub which, if you have been paying attention, does more than just wrinkle their digits.

Now trapped in 1986 in their teenage bodies, the guys must recreate what occurred twenty years ago to avoid the butterfly effect and get home safely. The overall plot is one of the most classic and well-worn of them all, and does well keeping the gags and scenes from drifting too far apart. The throw-away ending seems to ignore this for a few bad changing-history jokes, but for the most part the jokes hit their intent and keep coming.

Aside from an awkward extended cameo from Chevy Chase, the cast works pretty well. Most of the characters are cast well and work off each other with decided ease. Craig Robinson quickly asserts himself as the best thing here, effortlessly shifting from straight man to blazingly fast wit, scenes between him and Cusack’s Adam are the best in the film. Rob Corddry is more annoying than funny, and “Hot Tub” tends to tip its story time in his favor towards the third act, but Clark Duke manages to inject enough of the awkwardness of a Michael Cera role (with actual talent!) to make the moments between him and Corddry at least functional.

As expected by the neon pink leg-warmers of the trailer, the brunt of many of the jokes is the absurdity of the 1980s. Unfortunately, most of these tend to fall on the cultural side, without a lot of the expected movie cliché riffs or homages. A boot-to-the-face reference to “Sixteen Candles” near the film’s middle will have you wondering where all the other winks to Reagan-era cinema were. “Red Dawn” plays a bit of a role in antagonist motivation, but is just as quickly discarded as the ending. You’ll get pretty tired of all the technological jokes too; there’s just so many times a “lack-of-internet” punchline is funny.

The only aspect of “Hot Tub’s” production side to aspire beyond the standard is its soundtrack: boasting a Greatest Hits array of pop and rock hits from Motley Crue to “(I Just Died) in Your Arms,” each more lovingly edited in at the exact right moment than the last. The rest of the production, from direction to cinematography, risks the safety of complete straight-forwardness, but given the project at hand, it’s an understandable risk.

There’s something practically existential about explaining the intricacies of “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Playing to the exact “dumb but funny” notes you’d expect, this trek to the past manages just enough good jokes to make the ticket price worthwhile for less discerning moviegoers. The lack of movie references and non-lack of bad jokes makes it fall drastically short of the “mature in rating only” comedies released since “The Hangover,” but the pitch-perfect work from Craig Robinson ultimately saves the film. Those unsure of the $10 price tag will do well not to miss this one when it comes to rental, as this is a soak that’s worth at least one viewing. Beyond that, it depends just how much you hated the ‘80s.