Clark Duke, Craig Robinson, John Cusack, and Rob Corddry, in 'Hot Tub Time Machine'

Dir. Steve Pink
(2010, R, 100 min)
★ ½

When I first saw the trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine, I bemoaned the death of civilization. Had it come to this? But then the reviews came in, and positive word of mouth sprang up and I thought maybe, just maybe, this is one of those stupid movies that is actually a smart movie in disguise. I considered writing this review’s opening paragraph ahead of time in anticipation of being proven wrong.

‘Twas not to be.

The film, if you couldn’t already guess, is about a group of grown men (John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke) who take a trip down memory lane only to find themselves literally transported back to 1986 via a hotel room hot tub. That is where a good movie might begin, but where this movie ends. The problem is that the screenplay, written by first-timer Josh Heald along with She’s Out of My League scribes Sean Anders and John Morris, comes up with nowhere else to go. It doesn’t show any imagination, or even curiosity about this remarkable phenomenon, progressing instead as a sequence of ‘80s joke, ‘80s joke, sex joke, ‘80s joke, ‘80s sex joke, end credits. Is there nothing interesting to explore about time travel, or this era, or returning to adolescence, or even hot tubs or ski lodges?

The script resorts to sex and bodily-function jokes of a perfunctory sort, and director Steve Pink devises no way to augment them but to turn up the volume. When the boorish Lou (Corddry) has sex with a woman behind closed doors, he screams out disgusting things, which are supposed to be funny just because they’re disgusting, but even though he’s off-screen he’s playing to the camera. There’s no situational context; he’s screaming vulgarities at us with no cause but to be vulgar, and no effect but to pander.

The language is course, but never elevates the comedy. The ‘80s references — cassette players! leg warmers! Cold War! — are pedestrian and don’t rise even to the level of a nostalgic VH1 special. The casual, outdated homophobia is actually quite galling. (Corddry shows rear nudity more than once, and each time it feels as if his body is meant to be a punch line unto itself.) And when someone vomits, you can be sure it’s not just vomit but a graphic spewing, preferably on someone or something that will produce maximum repulsion. There’s something desperate about this level of self-conscious showboating, as if a lack of credible comedy can be compensated for by exaggeration.

Chevy Chase plays a handyman who literally appears and disappears at the screenplay’s whim. He’s ostensibly there to fix the damaged time machine, but no one has designed anything for him to say or do. Where he comes from and why he exists remain a mystery, and suggest a movie more interesting than this one. He’s the comical equivalent of a sentence fragment. This is such a film to feature such a character, so haphazard in its making that it’s a wonder it finds its way from the projector to the screen. Why Cusack stars in it may be a little easier to understand than why he produced it; it’s a promising high-concept that no one got around to making into a movie.