by Richard von Busack
How I love low comedy. In moments of exaltation, it seems to celebrate the freedom of humans from the will of God and the requirements of nature that the base clown will be ground underfoot. Comedy at its lowest is appropriately the opposite of tragedy at its highest.
Hot Tub Time Machine advertises its million-dollar idiocy in a beautiful high-concept narrative gag—advertised with the solemn Craig Robinson, showing all necessary Speilbergian awe at the phenomenon. Happily, the phenom is scientifically explained—and citing that explanation would count as a spoiler; but no, it wasn’t all a dream. In a character seemingly inspired by the Don Knotts role in Pleasantville, Chevy Chase plays a mysterious blue-collar hot-tub repairman who explains the epic time-travel.
A trio of depressed middle-aged men gathers for a ski trip reunion. One, Nick (Robinson) is a dog groomer who once harbored some hopes as a musician. The bald-headed satyr Lou (Rob Corddry) has just been rescued from an apparent suicide attempt, which may have just been mere drunken idiocy. The newly broken-hearted and cleaned-out Adam (John Cusack) packs up the car with his two old buddies and his 24-year-old nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), a depressed middle-aged man in training.
The ski resort they remember as the site of their youthful follies and triumphs has turned slummy; shoes hang from the telephone wires of the quaint frontier-town main street. The resort is now a dump. A one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover) might as well be dressed in black, such is the ambient heartbreak.
Getting into the whiskey and the drugs, the four go hot-tubbing. During the course of the night, they’re Jacuzzi-whirled through a time portal to a particularly significant evening of sex and drugs they spent in the haut-Reagan era. The world of 1986 sees them as if they were young men. Jacob, who rightly believes that he wasn’t born yet and shouldn’t exist, is fading in and out of sight.
Hot Tub Time Machine’s editing is ruthless, almost to the point of resembling like a coming-attractions reel, but the scenes always keep at mid-build. Cusack gives the film soul, as in a moment when he is caught, baked on psychedelic mushrooms, writing love poetry. The film is extremely fast, but the scenes seem to have bumpers around them. Rather than looking like a frenzied mess, it’s more like there was some brilliant four-hour version that was cut down to a ragged but right shape.
Director Steve Pink previously wrote the script that Americanized High Fidelity; that was film that launched Jack Black, just as this film is bound to launch Duke (already a standout in Kick-Ass), a soft-looking but razor-tongued comedian. Pink is also credited as music supervisor and, as in High Fidelity, assembles a string of ’80s hits and misses, providing the sonic ambience to give this past-party some density.
Corddry has been doing a lot of laboring in the comedy field; by labored, I mean the web-series parody Children’s Hospital, where he played a Patch Adams whose clown makeup seemed to be based on John Wayne Gacy’s Pogo the Clown. His Lou, a king of oafs who looks like a Russian Gulag guard, is astonishing profane, even cursing the very butterfly that’s the symbol of the Butterfly Effect—you know, one false move in the past causing Hitler to be elected president as opposed to the ability to right the wrongs of the present: “Like keeping Manimal on TV or preventing Miley Cyrus.”
Corddry’s comedic timing is murderous, even in spitballed semi-improv moments, such as a routine about telephoning an escort service (“I want the girl in the picture! No tomfoolery!”). Cusack and Corddry do things here that you’re certain you’ll still be laughing about 10 years from now: such as Corddry’s unplugging himself from a hospital bed or Cusack’s woebegone monologue about the day life went wrong for him, a tale as funny as the story in Gremlins about the Santa who ruined Christmas.
Hot Tub Time Machine doesn’t get mired in nostalgia jokes—the dull obvious gag about the size of antique cell phones zooms by quickly. And Pink and company make up for an unkindness done to Chuck Berry by Back to the Future in Robinson’s musical numbers. Speaking of Back to the Future raises the question of how much Hot Tub Time Machine yearns for idealized past. The film, however, doesn’t completely lionize the 1980s. There is a line that goes, “This isn’t the time of free love, it’s of Reagan and AIDS”—with justice, the script links these two different disasters.
Is this time-travel comedy really about women returning to trad roles? I’m unsure. There isn’t a bad female performance in the film. The actresses, almost all brought into be ski-bunny bimbos, do their parts proud; they’re sparkly and vacant. Lizzy Caplan shows the most spirit as an entertainment reporter coming through town fast and leaving on a midnight bus. She has some grit to her; with her hoarseness and speed, she’s tapping into the vibe of mid-1980s Jane Fonda.
The four men here are all walking-wounded types, hurt by women. Adam takes a plastic fork to the face, an incident reflecting the dining-related tragedy that ruined his life when he was a kid. The idea that women control the happiness of men is one kind of respect for their power, but the series of little emasculations are reversed, just like time’s arrow. And a wayward mother is brought back.
Hot Tub Time Machine is the grimiest, funniest thing since The Hangover. Sadly, even in the flashiest, craziest comedies there’s no room here for the funny yet soulful woman who might have wanted to see some personal improvement in her life since the old days. That’s the difference between men and women in this comedic field, as far as female feelings and male feelings go. Comedy is what happens to them, tragedy is what happens to us.