If you want to summarize the style of humor in Hot Tub Time Machine, your best bet is to look at the closing credits, when the film announces the “introduction” of William Zabka. You know, the bad guy from The Karate Kid. He has a cameo here, appearing alongside other 80s icons like Crispin Glover, Chevy Chase, and star/producer John Cusack. This time traveling raunch-fest spends the vast bulk of its time referencing, calling back to, and ruthlessly mocking the neon-tinted decade of excessive everything, because apparently we haven't done enough of that over the last 20 or so years.
That said, there is something genuinely amusing bubbling beneath the Hangover -through-time premise of this thing. Most of that is courtesy of its stars that didn't make their mint in 80s comedies. Craig Robinson (The Office, Pineapple Express) and Rob Corddry (The Daily Show, The Ten) play Cusack's best buddies, a crew of friends that have known each other since their hard-partying high school days, and over the years have veered off the course of friendship into the misery of modern adult life. Cusack plays Adam, an unmarried 40-something at the tail end of his latest failed relationship. His only companion is his MMO-addicted nephew, Jacob, played by Clark Duke (Clark and Michael, Kick-Ass). Robinson's Nick is stuck with a cheating wife and a (literally) shit job. Corddry's Lou makes them all look like rousing successes by comparison, taking to long bouts of suicidal drinking to pass the time.
When he actually comes close to killing himself, Adam and Nick decide to bring Lou back to the place where they had their best times back in the '80s, a mountain ski resort legendary for its party-hearty atmosphere. Only now it's a ramshackle mess of a place, complete with a one-armed bellhop (Glover) with a vaguely murderous glint in his eye. The sole amenity of the place is a mysteriously functional hot tub. If you can read the title of the movie, you can see where this is going.
Hot, bubbly time travel ensues and the foursome find themselves smack-dab in the middle of 1986. Everything is painted in neon colors! Everyone's hair is gigantic! That guy has a walkman! Michael Jackson jokes! Poison! Yeah, the '80s-themed gags generally tend to be that level of stale. At least there's a pretty good Red Dawn reference in there somewhere...
As tends to be the case with most time travel fiction, the friends find themselves torn between maintaining the integrity of the timeline until they can find a way home, or just going rip-shit all over history in the hopes of changing their misbegotten lives. Adam wants to avoid breaking up with a ditzy girlfriend he still pines for; Nick wants to pursue to the singing career he gave up on; Lou just wants to invent “Girls Gone Wild” and avoid getting his teeth kicked in by a gang of ski patrol jocks.
Watching these guys try to salvage their future is simultaneously the source of the most and least inspired comedy in the picture. For instance, the scene where Nick dials up his then-eight-year-old wife and frantically bitches her out for blowing random dudes is incredible. However, the scene where he gives an overlong performance of a Black Eyed Peas song to a dumbstruck 1986 audience? Not so much.
Cusack has similar issues with uneven material. At his most manic and frazzled, you see flashes of his best performances in films like Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity (movies, incidentally, that Cusack co-wrote with HTTM director Steve Pink), but those moments are often broken up by stitched-in scenes of half-baked relationship drama. His attempts to reboot with his lost love are mildly amusing, but his encounters with Lizzy Caplan, who plays a sort of low-key '80s version of the manic pixie dream girl, is dead weight in the script. It feels like a forced-upon light at the end of the tunnel for his character, and it goes absolutely nowhere of interest.
Corddry is mostly immune to these problems, primarily because he's on self-destruction overdrive from beginning to end. This movie more or less does for him what The Hangover did for Zach Galifianakis: It lets a comedic actor that, up to this point, has primarily been relegated to really good supporting work, shine as a lead. Corddry's manic, hyperbolically filthy performance is the definitive highlight of the movie.
These three pretty much run the show, but there's solid supporting work from Duke as the group straight man (who is horrified to meet the '86, raging slut version of his mother), Glover as the bellhop whose soon-to-be-removed arm becomes a hilarious point of fascination for the group, and Chevy Chase as an absurdly mysterious hot tub repairman who delivers clues about how the guys can get home, but obfuscates them to the point of nonsense.
Again, the performances aren't the problem here. The issue is that the script can't quite find its groove. For every bit of genuinely clever filth it delivers, it follows it up with one tepid '80s reference or another. I feel vaguely ridiculous saying this, but Hot Tub Time Machine just doesn't quite live up to its potential. Granted, my tiny, unscientific mind can barely can comprehend exactly what that potential is, but at the very least, Hot Tub Time Machine probably should have been more consistently uproarious than it is. More than enough of this movie works to make it worth a look, especially if you're a fan of copious amounts of naughty words delivered at break-neck speed. But if you really want an '80s send-up to remember, I'd look toward the cult-beloved Wet Hot American Summer. It captures the precise vibe of '80s tomfoolery this movie aims for, and without the aid of time travel, at that.