Craig Robinson has an immaculate deadpan delivery. It has to do with the breathy, deliberate, almost somber quality of his speaking voice that makes his characters usually seem unflappable or just perpetually sleepy. It's also why when he says the impossible titular line, "it must be some kinda...hot tub time machine..." you can almost forget the calculated irony of the movie's main plot device. Fortunately, Hot Tub Time Machine allows Robinson to play a character with a bit more depth than usual (which is admittedly, not saying much). Miraculously, it also (mostly) avoids the pitfalls of a comedy centered on such a conspicuous gimmick.
Believe it or not, Hot Tub Time Machine is not so easily summarized by its title. Unlike say Snakes on a Plane, the background of the four characters affected by the magical hot tub is of surprising import to the story of the film. We are first introduced to Nick (Robinson), a man who is clearly too old for his job at Sup Bitch, a spa for dogs. He has grown considerably distant from the two best friends of his teenage years, Lou (Rob Corddry), who's now a broke alcoholic stuck reliving his virile years, and Adam (John Cusack), who's more successful than Lou but recently and less than amicably separated from his wife. Adam shares a now half-empty house with his weirdly live-in nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), a shy high-schooler spending his free time in a Second Life jail. The same night Adam's wife leaves, he and Nick are reunited in the hospital to visit Lou, who may or may not have attempted suicide by suffocating himself with car exhaust. Realizing they are his only emergency contacts, Nick and Adam arrange for the three of them to forge a new or at least temporary friendship by spending the weekend exhuming their glory days at a once popular ski lodge. Jacob is also going.
Twenty years have been unkind to their old haunts. The ski town has all but closed down and the decrepit lodge has only one-armed Crispin Glover for a bellhop. The guys tentatively go through with their plan to stay there, resigned to humor Lou's insatiable and solitary need to party, until they realize the hot tub in their luxury suite works. A night of drinking montage later and they are hot tubbed back to the 80s.
The heroes only realize what happened after excessive visual references to 80s popular culture are lobbed at them on the ski slopes the next day. To the script's credit, this is the only time Hot Tub Time Machine devolves into an episode of I Love the 80s. Of course, there are no shortage of giggles to be had about Poison headlining the weekend party, a world without the internet, or the tacit fear of communist invasion (which all of a sudden doesn't seem so dated). But the writers resisted the temptation of making the protagonists walking punchlines to the setting's endless set-up. We are reminded that they are freaked out by the situation despite its novelty, and would like to get home.
Doing so, by Hollywood time-travel science standards, involves Adam, Lou and Nick all reliving their lives exactly as they had on the day they have been transported to. Unlike Back to the Future, they have been transported into their former selves and are perceived as such by everyone else around them. In fact, the director seems to bank on the audience's exposure to other time travel films, as the exposition, despite its departure from the norm, is glossed over at a brisk pace. As fortune would have it, the day is wrought with emotional events for each of the former friends and living through them again proves difficult. We see Lou and Nick testing the moral fabric of time travel. We see Jacob finding a way to restart the hot tub before his then nonexistent self disappears. Most importantly, we get to see Adam in girl trouble, enduring a gauntlet of John Cusack's former roles like Say Anything and more directly, Better Off Dead. A droopier Cusack gets to gradually reinhabit the wardrobe and listless angst that characterized his own rise to stardom, completely satisfying the absurd and fantastic conceits of the film. If the casting in Hot Tub Time Machine seemed a bit strange, it suddenly makes sense the moment the transformation begins. And while Cusack's meta-performance might be the strongest part of the film's comedy, Corddry and Robinson have enough chemistry to roll through the occasionally stale anachronism jokes and lamentable gross-out gags. The movie is rife with all manner of bodily fluid, at odds with the restraint the scriptwriters otherwise possess, but the apparent quota gets filled quickly enough.
Of course, time travel brings all the friends back together rather neatly. At its heart, Hot Tub Time Machine is a curiously sincere story with a fair amount of cheese and acute dedication to that unrelenting force, the heterosexual male bond. The 80s is a surprisingly ancillary feature of the humor, although the jokes at the time period's expense are numerous and predictable. Above all, the movie is not beleaguered by precious detachment nor a moralizing pretense. It is rather astonishingly, smarter and funnier than its title would suggest.