Take a look at the title with me. I realize "Hot Tub Time Machine" has no delusions of grandeur. It's not about weaving a complex story, it's not about great performances, and it's not about smart direction. It exists for the sole purpose of making me laugh—and that's its crippling failure. The film is so absolutely flimsy that when a joke misses the mark, everything collapses. You're not looking at a beautiful image, you're not engrossed in the story, and if you're not even laughing, then there's truly nothing to behold.
Personally, I'm more inclined to laugh at situations and characters I understand and am invested in. While Mike Judge's "Extract" wasn't a great film, the director and his cast created three-dimensional performances, and I was content to watch them work even when they weren't making me LOL. "Hot Tub," on the other hand, defines its characters with a single cliché: narcissist, asshole, married guy, weirdo (Jeez, that sounds familiar)—and spends all of fifteen minutes in introduction before chucking them into a car together and asking the audience to take for granted that they were once best friends. Their performances are bereft of this assumed comraderie, and they spend most of the body of the film with one or fewer of their three supposed amigos.
Here's the thing. Character is the foundation of even adequate cinema, and not only does "Hot Tub" forgo the character angle—which would be fine if the comedy compensated—but the inane dialogue they let dribble from their mouths blends tired, lazy college humor with lame eighties retrospective. To give you an idea of the intellectual level that the film and its pull-string characters operate on, at one point Nick (Craig Robinson), suspicious that he has been transported back in time, asks a stranger, "What color is Michael Jackson?"
I'll let that one simmer. Not only is the gag unfunny, but it's so stupid a thing to say that hearing it is outright frustrating. The joke is for the benefit of the 21st century audience rather than the internal logic of the film, and "Hot Tub Time Machine" is pathetic in its universal preference for cheap laughs over creative integrity. Even ideas that should be amusing either aren't or lack polish and execution. There is a somewhat successful running gag involving a future one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover) presented with an escalating series of arm-threatening situations in the past—though with a completely unfulfilling pay-off. That and a laundry list of other scenarios might have worked had "Hot Tub" had even a germ of originality.
I don't mean to offend with my comedic snobbery, but plainly, "Hot Tub Time Machine" is the sort of film I can't abide. As one who's attempted to write comedy before, watching the director pander (successfully) to the lowest common denominator while liberally pilfering from better work is an enormously frustrating experience. The screenplay is asinine and a blatant cash-in on the inexplicable wave of popularity a certain film by Todd Phillips generated last year. And yet I must concede, "Hot Tub Time Machine" is even a step removed from that. It's a pale imitation of a white turd.