CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
John Cusack, Rob Corddry Ride ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’
CHICAGO – What man approaching or in middle age wouldn’t love to go back to when they were in their physical, sexual, and alcohol-imbibing prime and not just feel young again but perhaps even correct a few mistakes that led to a disappointing life? This is the human theme of the surprisingly funny and consistent “Hot Tub Time Machine,” a crowd-pleasing ode to the days of “Miami Vice” and “Alf” (or, as a character in the film says, “Reagan and AIDS”) that delivers on multiple levels without being quite perfect or groundbreaking.
Of course, not all comedies need to be groundbreaking. The mega-hit “The Hangover” made a fortune and even won a Golden Globe for Best Picture merely by displaying men behaving badly and “Hot Tub Time Machine” is likely to strike a similar chord worth audiences and, hopefully, be as big a hit. It’s a better movie.
The most spoiler-titled film since “Snakes on a Plane” opens by introducing its four primary characters: Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson), Lou (Rob Corddry), and Jacob (Clark Duke). Adam is a the de facto leader of the group but he has trouble holding together relationships; friend or female. Nick has a sh*tty job (literally) and a henpecking wife who made him take her last name and could be cheating on him. Jacob is Adam’s nephew and he merely sits in the basement playing video games all day. Finally, Lou is the kind of guy described as an a-hole even by his so-called friends.
Hot Tub Time Machine
Photo credit: MGM
The action of the film kicks in when Lou is sent to the hospital after an apparent suicide attempt. The quartet ends up being forced to monitor Lou for a few days and decides to head to the site of the best days of their youth - a ski lodge called Kodiak Valley. Of course, the last quarter-century hasn’t been kind to the ski party industry and the gang finds themselves at a decrepit lodge with nothing to do but get wasted in the hot tub. The title kicks in and they wake up in 1986 just in time for Winterfest (featuring Poison!) and one of the most important nights of their life.
The rest of the film consists mostly of “Back to the Future”-esque machinations about how the gang needs to go through the same motions they went through that night in 1986 or risk “The Butterfly Effect” destroying the future. Adam needs to break up with the hottest girl he’d ever be with, Nick needs to sleep with a groupie despite the guilt over the fact that he’s now married and feels like he’s cheating, and Lou needs to generally be a douche and get his ass kicked by some groupies. Of course, things go awry, but not in the ways you might expect.
“Hot Tub Time Machine,” directed and co-written by Steve Pink (writer of two of the best films in Cusack’s career in “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity”), is both a modern gross-out comedy and an ode to the films of the ’80s. With a star who rose to fame in the decade, cameos by era icons like Chevy Chase and Crispin Glover, and liberal use of tunes like “Jessie’s Girl” and “Kickstart My Heart” (which true music fans will note came out three years after the action of the film, although it used on the soundtrack not in-scene, so whatever), Pink’s script is cleverly as much of a love letter to films like “Weird Science” or other ’80s comedies as it is a parody of the decade.
Hot Tub Time Machine
Photo credit: MGM
Even more than “The Hangover,” this is a hard R, a film with gross-out scenes that would rival an “American Pie” sequel but the talented cast and well-paced direction make it work. There’s also a humanity to the material that elevates it. Pink’s script cleverly plays with common problems of middle-age men by putting them back in their teen forms and leaving the moral decisions of what to do about the future they know is coming up to them. Most importantly, it’s simply a funny movie, a basic bar that most of its genre peers had not been able to reach lately.
As for the actors, Corddry and Robinson are perfect and the film should raise their status in Hollywood but Cusack is actually the weakest player in the game. He never turns Adam into much of a character. We don’t know this guy and when he starts to flirt with a cute reporter (Lizzy Caplan) from Spin, it’s difficult to care how it turns out. Cusack is surprisingly low-energy and is something I don’t think he’s ever been before - the film’s biggest weakness.
There’s also a bit of wheel-spinning after the movie’s set-up and I wish Pink’s script had one more twist or turn and went all out with the ’80s film references a bit more openly but the final twist - the ending - is surprisingly satisfying; uncommon praise for a gross-out comedy, most of which just end when it feels like they ran out of film. Instead of just coming out exhausted, hungover, and wrinkled, this trip through the “Hot Tub Time Machine” actually leaves the audience refreshed. And ready for the sequel.