Lost boy John Hughes was inducted into the pantheon this month, when the Academy devoted a moving Oscar-night tribute to the departed writer-director. But do you actually remember being a teenage movie-goer in the 1980s? It wasn’t all some kind of wonderful. Hughes movies came out twice a year, if we were lucky. The rest of the calendar was filled with the kinds of films that will never grace the stage of the Kodak Theater: half-assed, good-hearted comedies like, say, Moving Violations—the funniest-ever movie about remedial driving school starring Bill Murray’s brother.
To rewatch those Reagan-era features now, with their bikinis and their cris de coeur against conformity, is to be overcome with a mixture of affection and embarrassment—the same wincing nostalgia, in fact, that we feel when we look back on our Reagan-era selves. That’s the potent emotional fuel powering Hot Tub Time Machine, a fundamentally lazy comedy that will probably make you laugh like an idiot.
Hot Tub Time Machine was ostensibly directed by Steve Pink, but it was really born from the collective unconscious of the 34-45 demographic—the viewers for whom the movie will deliver the most reliable pleasure, as they tease out the embedded references to Sixteen Candles, Revenge of the Nerds, Better Off Dead. (Basically, every movie you watched 10 or more times on VHS.) Though the sweetness and cheer of its inspirations is, by the strictures of contemporary R-rated comedy, supplemented with violence, barfing, and hate-fucking, it’s still a funny, worthwhile tribute to an era of filmmaking that will not live long in the annals of cinema.
Four sad sacks head to the mountains after one of them almost dies in a drunken, pathetic maybe–suicide attempt. (“If I wanted to kill myself, I’d fuckin’ kill myself,” Lou, played by Rob Corddry, protests to his wary friends in the hospital. “I’d be awesome at it.”) Twenty-four years ago, Lou, Nick (a standout Craig Robinson), and Adam (John Cusack) had an epic weekend at Kodiak Valley; now they, and the dilapidated ski town, have seen better days. Asked by tagalong twentysomething Jacob (Clark Duke) how it was that the guys had such fun in what seems like such a shithole, Adam is glum: “We were young,” he says. “We had momentum.”
Soon, via the eponymous plot device, they’re young again at “Winterfest ’86,” an absurd wonderland of lime-green ski suits, casual sex, and Nagel prints. Though Cusack, Robinson, and Corddry continue to play themselves, we’re meant to believe that everyone else sees them in their 20-year-old bods. (Jacob is unchanged, though he occasionally flickers out of existence when alterations to the past imperil his conception.) Once there, they face the traditional cinematic time-traveler’s dilemma: Should they change the past? It’s a question made more piquant by the presence of George McFly himself, Crispin Glover, playing a bellman whose missing arm in 2010 gives 1986 its best running joke: How, and when, will poor Crispin Glover get his arm chopped off?
In tribute to his emeritus status, Cusack plays the straight man here to Corddry and Robinson. Corddry’s Lou, nicknamed “The Violator,” is the group’s id, demanding cocaine and hookers. Robinson’s Nick is the superego, so faithful to his wife that he’s traumatized by the demands of time travel to repeat the hook-ups of his past. And so we are treated to the unsettling, indelible image of Craig Robinson weeping freely as a naked hottie writhes on top of him in a Jacuzzi.
Hot Tub Time Machine pays homage to the essential disposability of ’80s entertainment, while also using its own faithful cruddiness as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Important plot points get glossed over; scenes are cut together clumsily; it features the least-convincing skiing shots ever committed to film. And, oh, the exposition! At the movie’s Eureka! moment, Robinson stares straight into the camera and intones: “It must be some kinda . . . hot tub time machine.” It’s less a knowing nudge than a comedic cross-check, meant to flatten the audience. And—as long as you’re the sort of viewer who will derive pleasure from the simple onscreen credit “and introducing William Zabka”—it’ll work.