Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Rob Corddry, and John Cusack in Hot Tub Time MachineHOT TUB TIME MACHINE

Early in director Steve Pink's new comedy, miserable fortysomethings Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Lou (Rob Corddry) decide to cheer themselves up with a weekend retreat to the beloved ski lodge of their youth, taking Adam's similarly downbeat nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) along for the trek. In the 24 years since the friends' last visit, the lodge has turned into a weathered dump. But their old room still has a jacuzzi, and after a debaucherous night of liquor, cocaine, and bubbling hot water, the four men awaken, and gradually discover that they've been magically transported to 1986. Gazing at the agent of this disruption with the space/time continuum, Nick says, "It's like some kind of ... hot tub time machine." And then, with the slowest of head movements and the deadest of deadpans, Nick turns and stares down the camera, as if to say, "Are you freaking kidding with this?"

At that moment, it's possible that Craig Robinson will be the only one able to keep a straight face. For Hot Tub Time Machine more than lives up to the promise of its grin-inducing title; the movie is both smart and joyously stupid, subtle and wildly over-the-top, clever and agreeably conventional, and, if you're of the same generation as the film's leads, it's likely to leave you with an unexpectedly potent sense of nostalgic melancholy. Its Back to the Future-inspired plot, of course, is beyond ridiculous. (Before being allowed to return to the present, our heroes must re-live their 1986 pasts or risk irreparable changes in 2010, including the probability of Jacob never being born.) Yet for all of the silliness and routinely crass jokes, screenwriters Josh Heald, Sean Anders, and John Morris also deliver a surprisingly rich and thoughtful meditation on middle-aged disappointment - given a do-over at one's youth, who wouldn't at least consider making completely different choices? - and are shrewd enough to suggest that even if you could change the past, it doesn't necessarily follow that you could change your own nature. Adam, Nick, and Lou may do their best to alter the course of their unhappy lives, but still wind up making the same damned mistakes all over again.

The last thing I want to do is make Hot Tub Time Machine sound less enjoyable than it is, and I'm not saying that the film won't be fun for those unacquainted with life pre-MTV. (You will, however, doubtless have more fun if you get the joke of the preppie villain - named Blaine! - getting all amped up after watching Red Dawn, and recognize another nemesis as being played by William Zabka, the blond blowhard who made life hell for Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.) From the genial, sometimes explosively funny crudeness to the expertly timed slapstick to the beautifully sustained running gag in which we wait, and wait, for Crispin Glover's hostile bellhop to be separated from his right arm - and every scene with that '80s touchstone Glover is a delight - Pink's movie is confident and fearless, buoyed by sensationally inventive portrayals by its quartet of stars. (Leading roles for those ace comedians Robinson and Corddry have been a long time coming, and prove worth the wait.)

But even given its considerable audaciousness - and despite the homophobic humor that could've been ratcheted down a notch or five - you might leave the movie thinking less about the bits that made you laugh than those that made you laugh and (gasp!) think, such as Adam's telling response when asked why his latest girlfriend left him ("I didn't do anything"), or Nick's understandable fear of his sci-fi entrapment: "It's the f---in' '80s - how am I supposed to get a job?!" As with all the best comedies, we laugh at Hot Tub Time Machine because it's funny, and we laugh because it's true.


How to Train Your DragonHOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

If I'd really wanted to, I could've easily juggled my schedule so that I caught a 3D screening of Dreamworks' animated comedy/adventure How to Train Your Dragon, in which a nerdy kid with a John Krasinski shag cut (voiced by Jay Baruchel) befriends a winged lizard and becomes a hero to his Viking village. Instead, I caught the movie in good old-fashioned 2D, and can't say I noticed the loss. Certainly, the formulaic storyline and most of the jokes would've been flat under any circumstances. But there's so much visual magic and so many terrifically exciting set pieces on display here that I can't imagine the film needing its 3D wizardry, glorious though I'm sure it is; the images - among them a delirious airborne free fall and the sight of dozens, then hundreds, of dragons emerging from cloud cover - are already grandly multi-dimensional. Your kids will no doubt beg you to take them to the "good" version of How to Train Your Dragon, but rest assured: This frequently sweet, sometimes spectacular entertainment is plenty good even without the extra expense of eyewear.


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