• Pages

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 42 other followers

  • Top Posts

Cusack’s a downer in likable “Hot Tub Time Machine”

Look, John -- even ROB CORDDRY can't believe you're in this movie!

The funniest thing about “Hot Tub Time Machine” is John Cusack — not because he says or does anything all that funny, but because he wears a look of fish-out-of-water bewilderment that’s uncomfortably hysterical. It is the astonished, slightly ashamed look of a man who went against everything his gut, his head, even that sardonic little shoulder angel (you know John Cusack’s shoulder angel is pithy) told him and took a part in this preposterous, occasionally hilarious movie anyway. As shocked as you are to watch this movie and see him in it, he’s all the more shocked to be in it.

Why Cusack chose this part should be a mystery to his fans (note: I’ve been one back since the “Tapeheads” and cameo in “Bob Roberts” days). Maybe, doubling back to his “Con Air” era, he wanted to make a “smart business decision” (i.e., cash). It’s also not unheard of that he’d want to stretch his wings, like he did with “Grace Is Gone,” only this time try his hand at a randy, grown-up dudecom. Whatever the reasoning, the choice was a bad one because Cusack can’t unwind and enjoy himself. He’s basically a rampaging buzzkill — not a straight man, but a buzzkill. Everyone else in “Hot Tub Time Machine” seems to know the score, know this is loopy fun and not much else. Cusack doesn’t. And it’s not a good sign when Crispin “Creepy Thin Man” Glover is having more fun than anyone.  

Cusack’s apparent discomfort, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate that “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a downer or a waste of time — far from it. Steve Pink’s light-hearted screwball buddy comedy delivers most of the laughs it promises thanks to Rob Corddry, who can’t be accused of not diving into every part with equine energy, and Clark Duke, enough a student of the Michael Cera School of Comedy to temper Corddry’s manic turns. Duke, Corddry, Craig Robinson and Cusack, an odd quartet any day of the week, find themselves in the very situation the movie’s title lays out. Adam (Cusack) and Nick (Robinson) have crumbling romantic lives. Jacob (Duke), Adam’s nephew, spends all his time playing “Second Life” in his uncle’s basement. They are paragons of stability next to Lou (Rob “I’m growin’ out my bangs” Corddry), an alcoholic whose latest stunt may have been a suicide attempt. No one’s quite sure how to handle the situation, so the gang heads back to the ski lodge where they spent their teen years … only to find the place deserted, as pitiful as they think their lives have become.

Enter the hot tub of the title, which turns out to be a time travel device. At first, the guys are in denial, though they can’t ignore guys “rockin’ cassette tape players” and Jeri-curl ‘dos. Michael Jackson being black should have been the tipoff, but Jacob is the voice of reason: “Do I really gotta be the asshole who says we got in this thing and went back in time?” Lines like these provide “Hot Tub Time Machine” with some zing, with Corddry stealing the best of them. (His idea to change the past to “prevent Miley Cyrus” belongs in the comedy time capsule.) The ’80s throwbacks (MTV! 10-pound cell phones! people snorting coke openly!) are a fun blast from the past, as are all laugh-at-not-with the decade jokes. Poor 1980s — you endorse a few bad ideas, like banana clips, jam shorts and leg warmers and people never let you forget it.

Ultimately, that’s what “Hot Tub Time Machine” amounts to: some laughs generated by ’80s jokes and the antics of Duke, Robinson and Corddry. There’s also a running gag about when the one-armed bellhop (Glover) of the future will lose his arm that doesn’t lose its appeal. It’s not as smart or raucous as the “The Hangover,” but it doesn’t try to be. In fact, the actors don’t try to do much of anything except run with the material. Though I do hope at least one of them took Cusack aside in-between takes to say: “Do I really gotta be the asshole who tells you this just isn’t your thing?”

Grade: B-

Quick Picks: “Body of Lies,” “Sex Drive”

“Body of Lies” (Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Strong, Alon Abutbul)

The world is “much simpler … to put to an end than you might think,” explains desk-bound CIA operative Ed Hoffman (Crowe) in “Body of Lies,” and coming from a man who begins and ends wars with a single keystroke, it’s as much a chilling threat as an observation about post-9/11 America. And it’s the glue that holds all the pieces — and there are many, many pieces, too many to count — of this Labrynthine espionage thriller together.

Donning Regular Joe khakis, a too-snug windbreaker jacket and oversized glasses, Crowe is creepy, hyper-informed Big Brother personified: He directs CIA operations in Iraq, Jordan and Syria from his air-conditioned Langley office, missions that quick-thinking field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) carries out. Attempting to smoke out terrorist mastermind Al-Saleem (Abutbul), the harried Ferris partners with the Jordan Intelligence Agency’s shrewd chief, Hani (a cold, calculating Strong). The rest unfolds at a breathless, whiplash-inducing pace, and there’s too much to digest in one sitting. (Here’s a film that both demands and rewards multiple viewings.)

Still, this is much more than a blow ’em up cat-and-mouse game — the focus on character development forces us to care about what happens to these agents as much as WHY it happens. (Just try not to squirm and wince during a brutal torture scene.) Solid but never showy performances make this possible. DiCaprio grows more subtle and effective with each role; long gone are the “Teen Beat” days when his flawless bone structure overshadowed his considerable acting chops. Here, his Ferris is no too-cool James Bond wannabe (sorry, Mr. Ebert) flashing a gun and a grin to charm the enemy. He’s a real agent in real danger, caught between two power players out to one-up each other — regardless of the collateral damage.

Which is where Crowe and Strong come in … not with a bang, but with a quiet determination that’s twice as unnerving. Ordinarily a bit-part actor, Strong, cast in the similarly complex “Syriana,” is freeze-your-blood good as Hani, who’s learned enough about America’s CIA operatives to manipulate them, turn them against one another. Crowe, too, turns in a fine, nuanced performance as Hoffman, who fires off world-changing orders — assassinations, bombings, you name it — in-between slow bites of breakfast cereal. Absolute power, it seems, hasn’t corrupted him; it’s just made him eerily complacent. In fact, it’s Hoffman’s total lack of remorse and conscience, his cold detachment and never-ruffled mannerisms that make him as sinister as Hani or the powerful anti-American terrorist ringleader Al-Saleem.

Yet it’s a testament to William Monahan’s smart script that neither Hoffman nor Strong are pigeonholed as villains. In Hoffman’s words, “no one’s innocent” in this war — words that burrow under your skin and stay there long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: B-

 =====

“Sex Drive” (Josh Zuckerman, Clark Duke, Amanda Crew, Katrina Bowden)

If “Sex Drive” feels oddly familiar, there’s a good reason: This uninspired teen sex/road trip comedy contains traces of everything from “American Pie” (note: Zuckerman bears a striking resemblance to “Pie” alumnus Thomas Ian Nicholas) to John Cusack’s whip-smart “The Sure Thing” to last summer’s gleefully foul-mouthed romp “Superbad.” What it lacks? Oh, say, one-tenth of the originality and heart of any of these better movies. The been-there, seen-that plot centers on shy virgin Ian (Zuckerman doing a half-hearted Michael Cera impression), who steals the tricked-out 1969 GTO owned by his musclehead brother (James Marsden as you’ve never seen him – with a pulse) and drives to Tennessee to meet Ms. Tasty (Bowden), his “Playboy” centerfold-hot online girlfriend. Along for the ride are womanizing BFF Lance (Duke), who nails anything in a skirt, and Goth gal pal Felicia (Crew), the object of Ian’s affection who, of course, has the hots for Lance. Various sex- and alcohol-related pratfalls take place (most of them in what can only be described as a Reform Amish community) and lead up to a soppy, unsatisfying close. There are flashes of originality — Seth Green is snarky brilliance as a sarcastic Amish mechanic; the phrase “visiting grandma” gets a cringe-inducing makeover — but ultimately “Sex Drive” is too derivative and sloppy to leave much of an impression (excluding, of course, the double-entendre title).

Grade: C-