The enormous success of 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, both the highest-grossing British film in history at the time of its release, as well as a $245 million worldwide box office smash, made a star of its screenwriter, Richard Curtis. He was nominated for an Academy Award, among other plaudits, and went on to pen the scripts for Bean, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. In 2003, with the kaleidoscopic ensemble comedy Love Actually, Curtis was pushed into directing as well as writing, resulting in another huge hit.
The British-set romantic comedy About Time, starring Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, is Curtis’ third film behind the camera, and it presents an amplified version of the triumphs and shortcomings most characteristic of his work. There is abundant charm, as well as a genuinely sweet-spirited view of the world; it is also dependent on plot turns that don’t withstand much scrutiny. While studded with moments of amusement and delight, About Time feels very much like the mangled film adaptation of a much richer and more rewarding novel.
On his 21st birthday, Tim (Gleeson) discovers from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family have the ability to travel back in time. If they find a dark place, clench their fists and just focus their mind—poof, off they go! Naturally, Tim’s first instinct is to use his newfound power to try to snag a girlfriend. However, after a summer of futilely wooing the visiting friend of his older sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), a still-single Tim heads off to London to pursue a career as a lawyer.
There Tim meets Mary (McAdams), and falls head over heels in love. What’s that—she has a not-so-serious boyfriend met just before they crossed paths? Tim can rectify that situation, of course. Mostly, though, Tim and Mary’s love is sincere, born of shared interests and mutual regard. Before long, the pair is living together, and then she’s pregnant. They make plans to get married and start a life together. When his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, however, Tim learns that even his powers of time travel have some limits.
About Time is chiefly a comedic fantasy of wish fulfillment, an overstuffed casserole of cute riffs and beats structured around characters who unyieldingly exhibit ample portions of generosity and benevolence. If it rather awkwardly handles the delineation of its time travel rules, almost everything that is frustrating about the movie is also counterbalanced by moments of thoughtfulness and insightfulness. While it’s fairly ludicrous that Tim, upon learning such a huge secret, would immediately scurry off to law school, Curtis at least has the honesty to still portray and explore men in their 20s finding (or at least being tempted by) the love of different women. About Time is also a deeply humanistic and conservative-minded film. While not above a joke or two at the expense of sex and booze, it peddles and illustrates stronger nuclear family bonds, since characters (well, the men at least) are afforded the opportunity to go back and say the words they really want.
All of which brings us to the great lie of About Time, at least from a marketing standpoint—that it’s foremost a romantic comedy in the vein of its karmic older sibling, Love Actually. Clearly that’s what Working Title Films and the attached financing studio partners, Relativity Media and Universal Pictures, ordered up, so there’s the obligatory meet-cute banter, as well as the attendant poster and commercials with McAdams and Gleeson laughing and running about in the rain. And the film’s lead actors, each possessing plentiful, easygoing appeal, fit quite nicely together.
But Curtis is never much interested in writing Mary as an equal character (that Kit Kat is such a rolling disaster is additionally problematic, from a gender perspective), and the film suffers for this one-sidedness. Instead of romance, per se, About Time is actually about family more broadly—and specifically about fathers and sons. The last 25 minutes tap into a rich emotional undercurrent related to the hard truths that so many men have difficulty discussing. Would that Curtis had the discipline to more artfully and substantively weave this material into his movie, or explore more honestly Tim and Mary’s relationship by having him share the burden of his secret. As is, About Time feels like a partially improvised fairytale.
Director: Richard Curtis
Writer: Richard Curtis
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Vanessa Kirby
Release Date: Nov. 1, 2013