Hot Tub Time Machine: Good, Not-So-Clean Fun

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Rob McEwan / MGM

Four guys, three of them middle-aged, get into a hot tub at a scruffy ski resort they used to frequent in the 1980s. They get drunk, spill various liquids on the controls and are transported back in time to 1986 — a time when the youngest, Jacob (Clark Duke), has not yet been conceived but very soon will be, perhaps even within the 24 hours in which Hot Tub Time Machine takes place.

Jacob is supposed to be 20. The movie includes a joke about Tiger Woods sexting, which places it squarely in 2010; if Jacob was conceived in early 1986 he should be 23. But whatever — Hot Tub Time Machine is not a durable good. If I saw it again tomorrow I would probably dwell on its lapses in continuity, its problematic plot seemingly held together with Silly Putty and whether, cinematically speaking, one really needs so many close-ups of dog poop, vomit and suspiciously manly fluids.

That would be the dignified approach, but it would not represent the full truth of my Hot Tub Time Machine experience. Vomit, poop, etc. aside, the movie made me laugh as much as anything since The Hangover or the love scenes in Avatar. (Further disclosure: The two women seated to my left hardly laughed at all, and as the lights were coming up, one said to the other, loudly and pointedly, "I think it's more of a guy's movie." I tugged on my skirt hem and tried not to feel judged.)

Hot Tub stars John Cusack, who, despite a natural tendency toward the dour, was one of the most delightful things to come out of the '80s. With the exception of 2000's High Fidelity, Cusack spent the aughts in a serious rut (Serendipity, Martian Child), so it's good to see him come back, even in something this ludicrous. He plays Adam, the semistraight man of the enterprise: reasonably successful in business but disastrous in love (his girlfriend just moved out) and in friendship, having long ago ceased calling his old pals Nick (The Office's very funny Craig Robinson) and Lou (Rob Corddry).

In movies, being out of touch with your buddies is a terrible offense and must be corrected immediately, no matter the cause. Nick and Adam have grown apart for standard reasons: Nick's friends think he is completely whipped by his wife (he has hyphenated his last name with hers) and his career is in the toilet (he works at a pet-grooming parlor called 'Sup Dawg). Lou, on the other hand, is a rude, crude alcoholic whose nickname is the Violator — a man it would be a brilliant idea to grow apart from — but he's also the impetus for the reunion. After a sodden night on the town, Lou passes out in his own garage behind the wheel of his running muscle car — an incident interpreted as a suicide attempt — and the doctor insists that someone keep an eye on him for a few days.

The challenge of remaining watchable while playing it odious is one few actors can survive. Corddry, who has until now been best known for his appearances on The Daily Show, ably meets it. Childless, wifeless Lou is a bundle of anger and avarice, and writers Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris load him up with harshly hilarious lines. Upon the boys' arrival in Room 420 (wink, wink), Lou gets on the phone in an attempt to order hookers while demanding Ritalin from the Gen-Yer Jacob. "Oh, come on, every single one of you has Ritalin," he says in exasperation. Lou is the Stifler of this crowd, with less hair and no sex appeal.

Some gags do fall flat. Chevy Chase is wasted as what Jacob dubs the "mystical time-traveling guy" who arrives to fix the hot tub; everything he says is mumbled nonsense and the only laugh lies in him being '80s icon Chevy Chase. But a gory running joke involving another prominent face from that decade — Back to the Future's Crispin Glover, playing a one-armed bellhop in the present and an intact but accident-prone bellhop in the past — might be the single funniest thing in the movie.

Hot Tub Time Machine works because it doesn't just take delight in lampooning the deserving '80s, it reminds us that our iPhone-carrying, Red Bull–swilling, video game–playing culture will soon enough make a fine target as well. The times are always changing. Walking into their ski lodge circa 1986 — just as the guys are beginning to realize that they have time-traveled, clued in by indoor cigarette smoking, a "Where's the Beef" T-shirt and Ronald Reagan live on TV — Nick grabs a woman and demands, "What color is Michael Jackson?" Her well, duh response — "Black!" — sends all four shrieking to the safety of their room. It's funny, but in the present, Jackson isn't of ambiguous color, he's actually gone — and so the joke hangs in the air for an uncertain second. It's a reminder of how good it is to be able to laugh at the passage of time, because otherwise, you're crying.