The future of American screen comedy looks an awful lot like the present — which is to say, steeped in pop-culture references, groin-fixated humor and gay panic — if we are to believe the enjoyably screw-loose vision of “Hot Tub Time Machine 2.” Fittingly enough, given John Cusack’s conspicuous absence this time around, director Steve Pink and scribe Josh Heald have ditched their original back-to-the-’80s conceit and leapt ahead to 2025, uncovering a not-so-grim dystopia where dogs ride hoverboards and automobiles have minds of their own, but where life continues to serve up the same old setbacks and letdowns as always. Tackling its time-travel premise with even less rigor than its predecessor, but just the right amount of slapdash, surrealism-for-slobs attitude (plus the welcome addition of Adam Scott), this unaccountably likable sequel may not match the first film’s fairly modest $65 million worldwide haul, but should draw enough returning fans to see its box office fortunes take a dip rather than a plunge.
Before it ended on a happy note of supernatural wish fulfillment, the first “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010) managed to deliver a surprisingly bittersweet meditation — OK, more of an extended brain-fart — on the irretrievability of the past and the inevitable disappointment of the future. Those tough realities come into play once more in this gleefully haphazard follow-up, which is founded on a general theory of middle-aged American male idiocy that holds true wherever (or whenever) one happens to be positioned along the space-time continuum. It’s that internal logic that lends “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” not only its rough-and-ready comic vigor, but also a surprising measure of thematic integrity.
A rapid-fire montage catches us up on our heroes’ new and seemingly improved lives. Despite having zero tech savvy, Lou Dorchen (Rob Corddry) has exploited his knowledge of the future to become the CEO of Lougle Enterprises; with his not-so-hard-won earnings, he’s become even more of a skirt-chasing, substance-abusing, all-around pathetic excuse for a human being than before, in particular serving as a horrible role model to his nerdy, neglected son, Jacob (Clark Duke). Meanwhile, Lou’s best bud, Nick Webber (Craig Robinson), has launched his own ill-gotten career as a multiplatinum recording artist, stealing hits before they’ve even been written by the likes of Lisa Loeb, the Black Eyed Peas and Snoop Dogg. Loeb herself makes a cameo early on, noting her deep admiration for Nick’s latest song, “Stay (I Missed You),” even though hearing it made her feel “violated.”
There will be more violations to come, thanks to a Christian Slater-hosted TV gameshow called “Choozy Doozy” (rhymes with “Jacuzzi”?), where virtual-reality anal rape is one of the more popular guest challenges. To be fair, though, techno-sodomy is less of a motif in Heald’s screenplay than old-fashioned castration anxiety, starting with a dramatic kickoff where a shadowy figure sneaks into Lou’s mansion and shoots him right between the legs. Although Jacob doesn’t much care if his wretched father lives or dies, he and Nick manage to drag the wailing, bleeding Lou back into the Kodiak Lodge hot tub — which, by way of a hastily explained loophole, has somehow resurfaced on the premises. The three men emerge from the tub to find themselves transported to an alternate universe circa 2025, where they will must figure out who shot Lou — and, for that matter, how the guy managed to survive, and with his nether-regions seemingly intact.
The (somewhat) deeper riddle, of course, is exactly how the phenomenon of time travel works in “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” — a thoroughly nonsensical process that Jacob, the brains of the outfit, manages to describe with admirable clarity, complicated somewhat by Lou and Nick’s incessant, sometimes spoiler-laden references to “The Terminator,” “Looper” and other wormhole-driven actioners of yesteryear. That sort of rampant cinematic cross-checking is very much in line with the first pic (there are also random shout-outs to “Duck Dynasty,” “Boogie Nights” and a future Meryl Streep biopic called “Streepin’ It Real”), as is the riff-erific bit where the characters repeatedly insult each other’s appearance — one of a few gags here that pay surprising dividends with each recurrence.
Cusack, who has recently divided his time between paycheck projects like “The Prince” and upscale specialty-division fare like “Maps to the Stars” and “Love & Mercy,” opted not to accompany his co-stars back into the hot tub this time around (“I don’t think it was his cup of tea,” Corddry noted judiciously in a radio interview). While Cusack’s character is missed here — there’s an intriguing suggestion that he may have vanished into his own alternate universe — his absence has the happy side effect of making room for Scott, who lends the proceedings a much-needed shot of novelty as Adam, a straight-laced, cheerfully insufferable groom-to-be who gamely joins Lou, Nick and Jacob in their quest to stop a killer.
If Cusack made a poignant anchor for the first “Hot Tub’s” rose-tinted ’80s nostalgia, then Scott is the perfect avatar for a sequel that takes giddy aim at the self-absorbed metrosexual yuppies of today and tomorrow, whether he’s wearing a gray man-skirt or asking a bartender for a glass of “room-temperature almond milk.” (If someone ever decides to adapt a movie from the Onion article “Horrible Couple Really Wants Wedding to Reflect Their Personalities,” consider this Scott’s audition reel.) The actor fits nicely into the mix alongside seasoned funnymen Robinson and Corddry, aided by the swift comic rhythms of Jamie Gross’ editing, the delightfully loud wardrobe choices by costume designer Carol Cutshall, and a genial air of anything-goes loopiness that keeps one’s better judgment in check for much of the 93-minute running time.
Visually, the sequel represents a step up; production designer Ryan Berg and the f/x team (courtesy of Zoic Studios) have fun developing a vision of 2025 that basically resembles the present, only with homicidal smart cars, super-advanced psychotropics and high-tech masturbation aids. All of which is very much to the movie’s point that the more things change, the more they stay the same: No butterfly effect is too convoluted to keep Lou and Jacob from having to work through their father-son issues, or Nick from learning to focus less on his career and more on his wife, Courtney (Kellee Stewart), one of several stock female characters here who are given virtually nothing to do, including Lou’s wife (Gillian Jacobs), Adam’s fiancee (Collette Wolf) and Jacob’s crush (Bianca Haase).
In other words, “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” is boorish and crass, homophobic and misogynistic, the very definition of sloppy seconds — par for the course where the present generation of male-driven, R-rated, “Hangover”-aping franchise comedies are concerned. That it somehow manages to send you out of the theater feeling tickled rather than sullied may be a mystery as impenetrable as the cosmos. “What exactly is this?” “When is enough enough?” “This is some stupid s—.” All sentences uttered by characters onscreen, and you might find yourself directing them right back at the movie — in a tone of disgust, perhaps, but every so often with something close to awe.