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Hot Tub Time Machine is exactly what it seems to be. Take Back to the Future, marry it to The Hangover, and you’ll end up with John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke traveling through time via Red Bull and bubbles. Maybe time traveling with a Delorean makes more sense, but it’s best not to think about it. Absurdity is what Hot Tub does, and does well.
So four friends end up back in 1986, re-living a pivotal ski vacation with a chance to right what once went wrong. For the fourth member of the group, changing the past could mean making him unborn, and so Duke attempts to play the butterfly effect voice of reason. His three buddies are too busy arranging threesomes, snorting coke, and readdressing teenage grudges to listen. So are we for that matter. The movie’s attempts to give our heroes' time traveling adventure some significance beyond random silliness usually falls flat. I don’t really care how much Craig Robinson loves his wife, I’d rather just see him on stage with his band kicking ass.
Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Craig Robinson steals scenes with his typically genius dead pan delivery, yet John Cusack often seems like he’d be more comfortable in a sentimental sequel to High Fidelity. I’m not sure flat out raunch, even when he’s cast as the straight man, is really Cusack’ thing. But the initial time travel sequence is brilliantly staged; a whirly, drunken dervish of half-forgotten images involving naked women, a person in a giant squirrel costume, and the grinning visage of Chevy Chase. I haven’t seen its like since Ben Stiller surrendered his wife to a midget orgy in Zoolander. Once out of the hot tub, the movie falls into lulls but never for long enough that it loses steam. Sure the idiocy of the 80s has been more than adequately explored on film, but Hot Tub Time Machine avoids some of that familiarity by setting itself in an 80s hot spot ski resort. It’s like watching modern movie characters dropped into a straight-to-DVD 80s ski comedy.
Chevy Chase, by the way, is funnier than he’s been on film in at least a decade. It’s the Chevy Chase we’ve seen on NBC’s Community, the one with wickedly off-kilter comedic timing. He seems to have finally figured out how to make old funny, drifting in and out of the picture as a hot tub repairman who’s always around but only seen when you least expect him. Crispin Glover shows up as well in a minor role (another Back to the Future connection), earning laughs as affable bellboy with amputation issues.
Hot Tub Time Machine works best when it’s at its most vile and ridiculous. It’s only in the serious moments that it lags, it doesn’t have the chops to pull off being a complete movie the way better entries in the raunch-com genre have. It’s funny when it needs to be and entertaining enough overall, especially in a couple of brilliantly staged musical moments (my audience literally burst into a spontaneous sing-a-long), that you’ll enjoy it. It’s best seen as a group experience, the perfect buddy movie, the movie to see when you’re out on the town a little bit tipsy and ready for action. Ditch the swimsuit, hop on in and bubble back in time.