An undercurrent of wistful melancholy is hardwired into many time-travel movies, since they tend to explore the passing of time, the fading of youth, paths not taken, and the sometimes-cruel prerogatives of fate. That’s true even of a time-travel movie as scatological and silly as Hot Tub Time Machine, a comedy about friends who’ve drifted apart over the years yet share a gnawing sense that their best days are behind them. And also a time-traveling hot tub.
John Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry star as best friends who reunite when Corddry ends up in the hospital following a suicide attempt. In an effort to cheer up their depressed pal, Cusack and Robinson take Corddry on a trip to a ski resort they frequented during their high school days. The resort has fallen on hard times, but it boasts a unique feature in the titular time-travel vehicle, which sends the trio, plus younger hanger-on Clark Duke, back to a day-glo cartoon version of 1986, where they inhabit the bodies of their younger selves. They must then decide whether to try to fix the sad mess they’ve made of their lives or relive past experiences exactly as they happened so as not to fuck unnecessarily with the space-time continuum.
Hot Tub Time Machine flirts with being a Wet Hot American Summer-style homage/parody of the ’80s ski sex comedy, but instead chooses the raunchy, lucrative buddy comedy route previously traveled by Old School and The Hangover, right down to the emasculated pal (Robinson) who must stand up to the strong, cheating woman in his life to regain his dignity. Sloppy and gleefully vulgar, Machine succeeds largely on the chemistry of its leads: ’80s icon of über-sensitivity Cusack’s puppy-dog earnestness contrasts nicely with Robinson’s dispirited deadpan understatement and Corddry’s relentless, needling comic aggression. Machine is engaging enough, but its characters’ path to redemption would be more satisfying if it weren’t greased with authentically ’80s-style casual sexism, gay panic, and frat-comedy clichés.