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Hot Tub Time Machine

by on March 25, 2010
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Some might deduce that a Ponzi scheme propelled John Cusack toward starring in last year’s disaster epic “2012” and, now, “Hot Tub Time Machine” — a movie that inserts the year 1986 not in its title, but into a heart and mind both genially fixed in the gutter.

Let’s be clear: Fond memories of those who believed Lloyd Dobler of “Say Anything …” spoke directly to them have inflated Cusack’s status to Master Thespian when, actually, his resume is littered with nakedly commercial films. And he’s headlining this one about, well, duh, because its gimmick allows him to rowdily, lovingly and, for the most part, cleverly relive the Savage Steve Holland comedies of his youth. Envision Lane Meyer as a sadder sack with a puffier face.

Director Steve Pink and a cabal of screenwriters (including a pair behind 2008’s underrated “Sex Drive”) understand “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a WYSIWYG movie all the way, and they offer that content without repent and get out of the movie’s way. As R-rated homages to 1980s films go, this is what “Cop Out” dreams it could be — charming, flippant, faithful to the films and the era it’s admirably sending up and, best of all, legitimately and consistently funny.

As Adam, a control freak dumped by yet another girlfriend, Cusack becomes an ersatz leader of losers. His disgruntled nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), is a basement-dwelling hermit whose imprisoned Second Life avatar sees more sunshine. And Adam rarely sees buddy Nick (Craig Robinson), a former musician with an unfaithful wife and a new job training dogs as neutered as him.

Adam and Nick unexpectedly come together after friend Lou (Rob Corddry), a divorced alcoholic and hair-metal aficionado, lands in the hospital after drunkenly using the accelerator as a bass-drum pedal (in a pitch-perfect character introduction). Mistaking Lou’s idiocy for a suicide attempt, Adam books the quartet a weekend in Kodiak Valley — a ski-resort site of snowbound sins for Adam, Nick and Lou back in 1986 when their lives didn’t suck. (Poignant isn’t exactly the word, but who could disagree with Cusack’s droopy-dog face and frowning countenance when he says, “We were young, we had momentum, we were winning”?)

Trouble is, the ghost-town resort is in as much disrepair as they are, so they get plotzed in their hot tub. That night of partying ends with them waking up in 1986 — with Adam, Nick and Lou appearing to others as their younger selves and Jacob flickering a la Marty McFly because he’s not yet been born. These guys confront this as they would in any semblance of real life such a movie could offer — in terms of “Stargate,” “Timecop” or “The Terminator.” After the hot tub breaks, they decide they must relive the night as it happened and ensure Jacob’s birth, but must fight temptation to do things differently and turn their lives around.

With purposefully smeared matte shots and desktop visual effects, “Hot Tub’s” production values are a lovingly slipshod throwback to no-budget comedies like “Hot Dog: The Movie” or “Hamburger: The Motion Picture.” PowerPoint presentations were given today that used better fonts and greater image resolution than these closing credits.

Meanwhile, more popular ’80s themes, films and actors get name-dropped. “Red Dawn’s” Cold War paranoia unexpectedly pushes the plot forward, Cusack sports a suspiciously Dobler-esque coat and the script offers the most grotesque paternal death story since Phoebe Cates’ dead-Santa tale in “Gremlins.” Also, “The Karate Kid” villain Billy Zabka and another crisp cameo appearance generate good running gags.

There are dry patches, through which the leads’ chemistry pushes. Corddry cuts loose as an id-obsessed imp, a devil on everyone’s shoulder who expresses the best of intentions in bizarre ways. Duke becomes more of a function for exposition (and has the weakest, most obvious plot twist) but lobs several stinging zingers at Corddry. And no one gets lost in a comic-monologue fugue quite like Robinson, in a role that will perhaps finally free him from secret-weapon status (“The Office,” “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” “Knocked Up”).

Only fools would carp on about the cartoonishness of “Hot Tub Time Machine,” which has its lapses in logic (instant aptitude for snowboarding, quick recovery from ’shrooms) and excesses (the eruptive aftermath of an oral-sex bet comes away from the envelope with a paper cut). Here is a comedy that — literally, without apology and like “Snakes on a Plane” before it — stares its audience in the eye with its campy premise, invites them to jump in and earns the hoots it defies them to suppress.