Hollywood has this thing they like to call the “High Concept,” which is basically a nice way of describing a clever, and almost always ironic, idea for a story. A good High Concept can in the course of a single sentence indicate all the dramatic and/or comedic possibilities of a film, and following the concept to its logical conclusions essentially makes the screenplay write itself. I bring this subject up because movies don’t get much more Low Concept than Hot Tub Time Machine, in which four guys get in a hot tub, accidentally turn it into a time machine, and wind up back in the 1980’s in the middle of a stereotypical Ski School teen comedy. This fact makes it all the more remarkable that Hot Tub Time Machine is an endlessly clever movie, filled with distinctive and likable characters who find themselves in one hilarious situation after another in one of the most entertaining broad comedies in years.
John Cusack, whose film persona has evolved from wide-eyed young optimist to jaded middle-aged sad sack so gradually that I’m not even sure he noticed, is perfectly cast as Adam, a jaded middle-aged sad sack who travels back in time to inhabit his wide-eyed young optimistic self back in happier days. Along for the ride are Nick (Craig Robinson), whose marriage and dead-end job are suffocating him, Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), an introvert who never had a strong male role model and Lou (Rob Corddry), who hates his life so much that when he almost dies during a drunken binge everyone assumes that he tried to kill himself. Adam and Nick plan a road trip back to their old ski lodge to cheer Lou up, leading to an unexpected incident with a hot tub time machine that gives them the opportunity to relive their old glories – or more accurately their old defeats – back when their lives were full of more possibilities than missed opportunities.
As with all time travel movies the mechanics of messing with the past are raised, but none of our heroes are quantum physicists (Jacob comes closest, as a writer of “Stargate” fan fiction) so although rational questions are raised – Why do all the middle-aged guys inhabit their teenaged bodies while Jacob, who wasn’t even conceived yet, looks normal? Is it even possible to change the future, or will everything they do right itself eventually, “Lost”-style? – they are quickly disregarded as unanswerable. If anything, Adam, Nick and Lou are excited about the possibilities of changing their fortunes, leaving only Jacob to fret over whether all the changes in the timeline will prevent him from being born. (Jacob’s Mom is at the ski lodge too, and he’s shocked to find that discover she’s a total slut.) Their adventures lead them to anachronistic musical numbers, predicting sporting events for money and in Nick’s case struggling with all the opportunities to cheat on his wife, to whom he is not yet technically married (and is only nine years old at this point anyway).
There’s not much point in recounting the various amusing situations the cast winds up in, since the very unexpectedness of their journey is the source of most of Hot Tub Time Machine’s comedy, but Crispen Glover does appear in the finest running gag in what may be decades now as a doomed amputee in the present whose origin story may or may not be revealed back in the 1980’s. Cusack, Robins, Duke and Corddry – along with the rest of their fine supporting cast – straddle the fine line of wackiness and sincerity so that every development manages to be silly but still feel consequential. Hot Tub Time Machine may have a stupid concept, but making this delightful movie was a very smart idea indeed.
CraveOnline rating: 9 out of 10