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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-