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There’s a fine line between stupid funny and just plain stupid.

The original Hot Tub Time Machine was a masterclass in balancing that line. It took an uproariously ridiculous concept and – with a wink to the audience – gave it just enough structure to glue all of its absurd storylines together. It was perhaps my favourite comedy of 2010, and one of my tops over the last few years.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 maintains the franchise’s storied tradition of crude characters and hot tub based time travel, but it feels like something’s missing this time around… most of the pieces that made the first one great are still in place, they’re just not adding up to the same magic.

Lou (Rob Corddry), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Jacob (Clark Duke) are still enjoying the spoils of their trip back in time from the first movie. Lou uses his knowledge of the future to steal ideas from tech companies with his massive corporation Lougle. Nick rips off pop songs from as yet undiscovered artists. Jacob lives at Lou’s house and he’s comfortable… though Lou’s sort of trying to turn him into his butler. All of them are the same guys we knew back in the first movie. If anything, Lou has gotten worse.

But as often it does in sequels, disaster strikes. Lou is shot in the ummm…crotch region… by an unseen gunmen and the guys are forced to use the hot tub time machine again to find the killer. Only instead of going into the past they get sent 10 years into the future.

The first act plays out exactly as well as you would expect from a first act based on a handful of throwaway jokes – albeit hilarious throwaway jokes – from the end of the first movie. It doesn’t take long for the setup to start feeling drawn out.

Still, that’s not the heart of the issue with HTTM 2. Once the guys started time travelling again the beginning stumbles don’t feel that important anyway. It’s really the choices made after that where I think the real issues lie.

For one, HTTM 2 just isn’t as grounded as the original. Now I know it seems foolish to say any movie about travelling through time is grounded, much less one with a title like Hot Tub Time Machine – obviously I’m referring to that in a relative sense – but the difference is there, and it’s important.

The plot of the first Hot Tub Time Machine was a lot simpler – four guys who get sent to the past just trying not to screw up the future before their time machine gets fixed. The comedy came from relatively down to Earth places, with contemporary characters essentially thrown into an ‘80s movie. We had something familiar to draw from.

HTTM 2 focuses on a rather confusing time travel plot that includes alternate universes and the past actually being the future. A lot of the comedy is derived from weird quirks and inventions we may find in the future. The ‘80s had rules. We know what the ‘80s are like. The future doesn’t, and there are times when the scenarios feel a tad too manufactured to be funny.

Likewise, the first film was a lot more thematically coherent, a sort of deconstruction of that nostalgia for the past we all have and the desire to reconnect with people who used to be close to us. Now it’s not that I’m watching Hot Tub Time Machine for its deep inner meaning, it’s just that the presence of that sort of underscoring theme gave some purpose and direction to that movie, a general flow to the proceedings, and though the sequel tries its best to recreate this, it comes up lacking. There are times when HTTM 2 just feels like a collection of scenes.

What I’m really hitting at here – and I’ll admit this could be limited to Hot Tub Time Machine movies – is that travelling to the past is just a lot more fun than travelling to the future. More relatable anyways.

I’ve also been tempted to point to John Cusack’s absence as the reason for that perceived dip in quality. He’s a great actor, and his ‘80s movies credentials made him a hilarious choice to plop into that time period. I think though what I really miss is what his character brought to the table: he was that oh so important straight man who brought that aforementioned deeper meaning. His story was the thread that held that first movie from crossing that line from stupid funny to just stupid.

Now I know, it’s not entirely fair to spend an entire review talking about why one movie doesn’t stand up to another – and contrary to how it must sound I didn’t just want a rehash of the original – but it’s hard to explain what’s lacking in the second installment without referring back to the first. The missteps in HTTM 2 are subtle and the comparison is just the easiest way to highlight them… and I’m on a deadline here.

Still, I feel uneasy about how many words I’ve spent picking out flaws. While the issues with HTTM 2 are elusive enough to take 600 or 700 odd words to explain, its strengths don’t take nearly that long. The characters are still great, the writing can still be uniquely funny, and the cast is still as lovable as ever.

Which is why I had a lot of trouble rating this movie. It has its faults sure, but Hot Tub Time Machine 2 doesn’t feel like a mediocre comedy. With those, usually at best you break a smile or two. When HTTM 2 is funny, it’s laugh out loud pain-in-your-gut funny. That ought to be worth something.

Final Score: 2.5/5