The most attention-getting, stupid/brilliant high-concept title since “Snakes on a Plane” turns out to be the first and last memorable thing about “Hot Tub Time Machine.” An ensemble piece pairing middle-aged malaise with retro teen-comedy nonsense results in shenanigans that doubtless aspired toward higher models, but emerge smelling like “Old School” meets “Kickin’ It Old School.” Nonetheless, half-baked ideas and sloppy execution aren’t necessarily impediments to comedic B.O. gold, and this leaky beer pitcher of laughs should do OK or better for needy domestic distrib MGM. Offshore prospects look less bubbly.
A 17-year-old party monster in a fortysomething body, obnoxious Lou (Rob Corddry) is found near-dead in circumstances that look like a suicide attempt. Dragged to his hospital bed are his fed-up longtime best friends, Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson), whose adult lives haven’t turned out as they’d hoped, either. To cheer Lou, they propose returning to Kodiak Valley, the ski-resort setting for their fondly remembered youthful debauchery. Reluctantly tagging along is Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), who’s been living in his basement since a tiff with Mom.
Upon arrival, they discover the joint is well past its glory days. There being no apparent party scene left to crash, they trundle into a hot tub (though it should have raised their suspicions when it suddenly transformed from empty with a dead raccoon inside to clean and full with mood lighting).
When a Russian energy drink is spilt on the controls, the quartet are magically transported back to 1986. At first, they’re puzzled by deja vu sightings of neon-bright ski pants, cassette tapes and Jheri curls. Fears are confirmed in the mirror, which reveals they’ve reverted to their younger selves (Lou sporting heavy-metal locks, Nick a tall topiary fro a la Christopher Reid of Kid ‘N Play), though to our eyes and their own, they retain their grownup forms.
Deciding they need to repeat their exact actions of a quarter-century ago to avoid rupturing the time/space continuum our heroes quickly get distracted. Adam reunites with the sexy girlfriend he’d foolishly dumped (Lyndsy Fonseca) and meets the smart girl he should have hooked up with (Lizzy Caplan). Nick is again lead singer for the party band he sacrificed for married life. Lou recommences chasing skirts and picking fights with frat rats (Sebastian Stan, Charlie McDermott). Only Jacob remains focused on getting back to the future — staying here means he might never be born.
There’s certainly potential to “Hot Tub’s” concept. But somewhere along the line — between Josh Heald’s original story and screenplay, the rewrite by Sean Anders and John Morris (of much better comedies “Never Been Thawed” and “Sex Drive”), and the blindfolded-archer direction by frequent Cusack collaborator Steve Pink — what was perhaps intended to be delightfully silly got plain dumberer.
The pic commences with the manual removal of feces from a dog’s rear, and later features projectile vomiting (twice), wayward pee and some of the lowest gay-panic humor in recent memory. Slapstick setpieces (many involving energetic Crispin Glover as an ill-fated bellboy) are indifferently handled. While brisk, the overall flow has that edited-with-duct-tape feel of material slapped together in haste.
Eighties nostalgia is routinely reduced to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, plus booze — i.e., the ’60s and ’70s, but with different fashions and songs. This is the kind of movie in which people of the past are viewed as naturally stupid because they don’t have our up-to-the-moment pop-culture references (regularly name-dropped, natch). However, auds primed to laugh on cue may well be satisfied by the sheer number of such cues here.
This is no performer’s finest hour (least of all that of Chevy Chase, in a mirthless mysterious-time-machine-master role), but all clock in gamely enough. Which can’t be said about some other major contributors: Even by recent standards for mainstream comedy packaging, “Tub” looks dull and ugly.