It's unlikely the American Film Institute will be calling the producers of "Hot Tub Time Machine" for a print of their movie any time soon. But after catching the comedy at its Hollywood premiere last night, we have to give its credit for something we didn't anticipate: an unlikely tour through recent Hollywood history.
On one level, "Hot Tub" is the same gross-out comedy you'd expect from the writers who brought you the outsized raunch (but not necessarily the outsized comedy) of "Sexdrive." Catheters get yanked out to scatological effect, a man's shoulder socket spews blood "Saw"-style, the prospect of male-on-male fellatio is trotted out, exploited, overdone. An exuberantly alcoholic Rob Corddry vamps around the screen acting crazier than a hyena on Ecstasy.
Actually, on pretty much every level "Hot Tub" is the gross-out comedy you'd expect.
But in subtle and sly moments, Steve Pink's film -- which, as the title makes no effort to obscure, is about a group of 30-something underachievers who jump back to their high-school selves thanks to a magical jacuzzi -- has a little more on its mind. Instead of just plopping the characters back in the Reagan era and tricking then out in Miami Vice colors, it offers up a full serving of references, generally made with little fanfare, to 1980s films.
There are implicit allusions to "Real Genius" and "Sixteen Candles." There are explicit references to "Red Dawn" ("Russkies!") "Better Off Dead" ("I want my two dollars") and "The Karate Kid" ("Put him in a body bag," from a couple characters modeled after the "You're dead meat" guys.). And, of course, there's the whole "Back to the Future" leitmotif, what with the time travel back to high school, the fears of people disappearing because of the butterfly effect, and characters trying to avoid sleeping with their mothers. There's even an "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance scene, only here's it's the music of the Black-Eyed Peas, not Chuck Berry, that gets imported from the future.
Meanwhile, John Cusack , perhaps the ultimate '80s-film reference point, is not only in the picture -- he's basically playing a version of himself from his "Say Anything" days: the good-hearted but still slightly dangerous romantic. In fact, the whole premise of "Hot Tub Time Machine" harks back to the '80s, when not only "Back to the Future" but time-travel movies as different as "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "The Terminator" came into their own.
There have been movies, such as "The Wedding Singer" and "Adventureland," that were either in or about the '80s. But it turns out "Hot Tub Time Machine" isn't really a movie about the '80s. It's a movie about '80s movies. (Taken with "MacGruber," the SXSW sensation that trades on the action-movie cliches of that decade, the two form a little duo of meta-ness.)
It's hard to know if the young male audience that "Hot Tub" is aimed at will catch many of the Easter eggs, or care much about them. That's the commercial gamble for studio MGM, which may find that the target audience of males in their teens and 20's miss the movie's best jokes, while those in their 30's and 40's may be a little too old to run to a gross-out comedy on opening weekend. But there's something fun just the same about a movie trying to accomplish two things at once.
It reminds us a little of the two-handed approach in which a silly joke was followed by a sophisticated one in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" -- which, incidentally, seems to be the only '80s movie not referenced here.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photos: "Hot Tub Time Machine." Credit: MGM. Back to the Future. Credit: Universal Pictures.
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