First, a recap of events. Nick (Robinson), Adam (John Cusack), and Adam's nephew Jacob (Duke) upended the history of the world while on a male bonding trip designed to keep estranged college classmate Lou (Corddry) from committing suicide. Lou alone decided to stay in the past, fathering Jacob and, in the gap years, stealing for himself everything from Mötley Crüe's career to ownership of Google. The last film ended with Lou's redemption — the suicidal jerk-off had become a, well, happy-to-be-rich jerk-off. In the years since, Lou's become even more of a creep. Serial killers aside, he might be the most vile sociopath ever seen on screen: In one scene, he forces an unwilling, heterosexual friend to screw another man on primetime TV. (A callback of sorts to the original, where a thug commanded that Lou give Nick a blowjob, but that was a goon with a gun, and this is our protagonist.)
Lou is more Biff Tannen than Marty McFly, and the hellish current day he's created is one part Back to the Future 2 and two parts Idiocracy. (He's running his tech company, Lougle, so badly it's poised to be overtaken by Lycos.) He arguably deserves it when, in the opening sequence, a mysterious party guest shoots off his penis. (No one in my theater shed a tear.) Before, we were rooting for loser Lou to live. Are we now rooting for him to continue his reign of tyranny? But there is a hot tub in his mansion, and a movie to be made, and so we're off to 2025, on a quest to see if Lou can mend his manhood and his manners. As Jacob explains, "Who's to say the past isn't anything more than the future of the present?"
If Charles Dickens had a time machine, I doubt he'd leap ahead, take note of Hot Tub Time Machine's decent box office, and rewrite A Christmas Carol to whack off Scrooge's dick. Still, he'd have done a better job of it. To work, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 needs to draw on the original's strengths: surprise, a straight man, a crazy world, and jokes that aren't so much targeted as machine-gunned around the theater. Returning screenwriter Josh Heald has scrapped everything.
Hero John Cusack — an actor of bottomless empathy and bewildering career choices — is absent. (Rumor is he refused, though Cusack has twice tweeted that he was never asked.) Cusack brought gravitas even as a 16-year-old panty thief. Without him, the crueler remaining trio clang off each other like knives. In his place, we have his future son, Adam Scott, a comedian who specializes in playing characters who look as straight as a tightrope until you peer close and realize they're high-strung and trembling. He's great fun, but you still never care much whether his characters live or die.
We've also lost the '80s setting and, as injuriously, its guilty-pleasure nostalgia soundtrack, which could be played over a 90-minute car commercial and still get a few rave reviews. Alas, for those of us doomed to live on in the present timeline, 2025 doesn't look much more fun than today. People still dress the same, pardoning the occasional man-kilt. And music appears to be extinct, thanks in part to Nick, who usurped the MTV hits of everyone from Lisa Loeb to Dr. Dre before they ever wrote them.
Worst of all, we've lost the jokes. Instead of goofy but well-planned plotting — like the running gag of wondering when Crispin Glover's bellhop was going to sever his right arm — the structure of the sequel seems to be: Plop the gang in a weird location and wait for Robinson to improvise something funny. To Robinson's credit, he brainstorms a few zingers. On describing Future Lou's wild beard and David Lee Roth threads, he grunts, "You look like an orchestra conductor for stray cats." Robinson is clearly better than the material, but even at its best, this demi-franchise was the first to lampoon its pointlessness. Like a hot tub itself, it looks inviting, but all too soon you've had enough.