"Hot Tub Time Machine" is the kind of movie best viewed in a crowded theater, the contagious, instinctive laughter of the audience drowning out much of the dialogue. As in "The Hangover" (to which comparisons are unavoidable), the plot involves three longtime friends and one new guy. Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson) and Lou (Rob Corddry) have been estranged ever since a mysterious incident in Cincinnati but still keep each others' numbers in their phones.
In the film's opening minutes, Lou drives into his garage guzzling booze, listening to '80s music and gunning the engine as the automatic door closes. He denies any suicide attempt -- "If I wanted to kill myself, I'd f-ing kill myself. I'd be awesome at it" -- but his buddies don't believe him. To cheer him up, they whisk him away to the ski resort they frequented in their early 20s. They also bring Jake (Clark Duke), Adam's nephew, who lives in his basement and plays "Second Life" all day. Jake's avatar is in prison. "In life, you make choices, and if you screw up, you have to pay for those choices," he sagely tells his uncle. Why is Jake there? The three older men are so neurotic that they need a "Second Life" addict to act as straight man.
As you have surmised from the previews, the crew travels via hot tub back to the era of Reagan, "Alf" and Walkmans. The audience still sees Cusack, Robinson and Corddry, but all the supporting characters see them as their younger, thinner selves, the college-age kids who stayed in the same room during "Winterfest 1986." Jake remains in the same body but calculates that he was born exactly nine months after Winterfest. When he flickers in and out, ghostlike, it serves the same purpose as the photo in "Back to the Future" with Marty McFly's disappearing siblings.
As in most time-travel movies, the characters set out with the intention to alter nothing, because they don't want to unleash a "butterfly effect" and possibly make Hitler president or do something that would prevent Jake from being born. But none of them is happy in 2010 -- Adam's girlfriend just left him, Nick's job requires him to manually retrieve car keys from dogs' intestinal tracts, and you already know about Lou. The fantasy of time travel is, after all, rooted in the desire for second chances.
I cannot in good conscience describe most of the movie's humorous moments, because while the film is rated R, this newspaper is not. I will say that one involves a grown man telephoning his 9-year-old future wife and accusing her, in graphic detail, of infidelity. In others, male bodily fluids are scattered about in ways only employees of a mental hospital might usually encounter. Lou is the catalyst for most of the chaos, and as this needy, binge-drinking, hyper-sexed, manic-depressive spectacle of self-destruction, Corddry is both sympathetic and downright funny.
I don't think people will be talking about this movie as long as they did "The Hangover." The differences are small -- weaker supporting characters, vulgarity that is less indigenous, more gratuitous, although if you liked "The Hangover" you're probably OK with gratuitous vulgarity. One plot hole, in particular, still bugs me: Jake's age is established as 20. He was conceived on that fateful night in 1986. But 2010 minus 1986 is 24. Right?
All this is Monday-morning quarterbacking. In that crowded theater, I was thoroughly entertained. The moment I got home, I updated my Facebook status with the message "'Hot Tub Time Machine' = hilarious." I stand by that assessment.
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke
DIRECTOR: Steve Pink
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
RATING: R for strong crude and sexual content, nudity, drug use and pervasive off-color language
THE LOWDOWN: A magic hot tub carries four men back to 1986.