Silver Screen: Hot Tub Time Machine II 1/2*
Hot Tub Time Machine II is so exquisitely bad, it manages to squirm beneath the lowest expectations set by its daringly dumb title.
What’s curious about this absolutely misbegotten sequel is that it’s predicated on the single least-important element of the original. The first Hot Tub Time Machine was a charming if underachieving goof about regret and second chances. Three middle-aged pals fallen on hard times (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry), plus an inadvertent young tagalong (Clark Duke), get a chance to return to their eighties heyday and undo the mistakes that set them on the wrong path. It was a nostalgia comedy steeped in period detail.
Director Steve Pink and writer Josh Heald just wanted to return Cusack to his glory era for jokes about synth music and leg warmers. Movies with Freaky Friday body swaps or mysterious jumps through time à la A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court usually gin up a mumbo-jumbo excuse to jumpstart their fantastical plots: a conk on the head, a weird dream, or, in perhaps the lamest recent example, two guys simultaneously peeing in a water fountain that’s struck by lightning in The Switch. Writer Heald’s inspired lowbrow premise was to call attention to his own silly excuse by making it as absurd as possible and putting that outlandishness right in the title.
The actual Hot Tub Time Machine itself was a plot device turned meta-comedy lark. In the sequel, however, the Jacuzzi that sent the gang back to the eighties isn’t a glib gimmick, it’s the centerpiece of the entire godforsaken movie.
As if that didn’t portend imminent cinematic disaster, a more ominous sign abounds: star Cusack appears here only in a brief glimpse of a photograph, and even in the picture he looks shamed by his presence.
In lieu of Cusack, Corddry is pushed to center stage, and it’s not a comfortable move. He’s a funny guy, if perhaps better suited to supporting roles, but here he’s encouraged to play washed up, alcoholic Lou as pure id. Not only does it negate the modicum of growth his character achieved in the original— obnoxiously enough, the sequel assumes you not only saw Hot Tub Time Machine but remember it with surprising clarity— it makes the center of the movie its own loathsome antagonist.
The needlessly complex yet nonsensical plot finds Lou and Nick (Robinson) living the lush life thanks to their opportunity to change the past. Nick is a successful singer and Lou is the tyrannical founder of tech company Lougle. Poor Jacob (Duke), revealed in the last movie to be Lou’s illegitimate son, is forced to serve as a butler and butt of jokes for his tyrannical party monster of a father. Despite their wealth, all three men are despondent, none more so than Lou, whose self-loathing drives him to acts of such extreme unpleasantness that he’s gunned down by one of his many enemies during a party at his mansion.
The fellas rush Lou’s bleeding body to the Hot Tub Time Machine to take him back to the past and save his life. Inexplicably, though, they wind up heading the wrong temporal direction and arrive in 2025. They discover their own sad fates— Lou is a drugged-out bum, Nick is a national disgrace clinging to celebrity with a pathetic Macarena-style shuffle— and enlist the help of Adam Jr. (Adam Scott), the son of missing-in-action Cusack.
The mirthless, distractible hijinks that ensue include forced anal sex on a sadistic reality show hosted by Christian Slater, a homicidal smart car, and a futuristic designer-drug trip, all while trying to figure out who tried to kill Lou ten years ago. Mostly it plays like a series of sketches awkwardly tied together by an outside director brought in to clean up someone else’s mess. (The fact that both the original writer and director are responsible is just kinda sad.)
Hot Tub Time Machine II presents a grim view of humanity where all guys are hopeless addicts and cheaters, and the women are topless idiots or nagging harpies. Gillian Jacobs is a talented comic actress, but are we supposed to laugh with or at her as a cloyingly childlike bride just waiting to explode into a hateful nympho? Pink and Heald reluctantly make the moral of their movie about focusing on family instead of drugging and philandering, yet ninety percent of the jokes are predicated on the hilarities of substance abuse. (Not since the wretched Shallow Hal has a movie so gleefully fumbled around with the sins it decries.)
None of this would matter if the jokes landed; you don’t go see a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine II for the plot. Yet this shoddy sequel represents a new nadir of the Apatow-style comedy knockoffs. Improvised riffs are protracted no matter how much they disjoint the flow of the movie and turn the characters into desperate punchline machines, like bad standup comics who don’t know how to edit their acts. Instead of dialogue the boys just bat pop culture references back and forth to prove how many movies they’ve seen. There’s no lower form of humor than the comedy of recognition. It’s as empty and tiresome as a kindergartner who, having scored a laugh from a silly joke, keeps repeating it in a bid for attention.
Hopefully the Hot Tub Time Machine franchise is like that annoying little kid in one other way— if you stop reacting he gives up and goes away.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.