Richard Curtis’ 2013 film About Time was once my favorite romantic comedy. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a gangly red-headed lawyer, discovers that the men in his family can time travel. This news is delivered to him by his sprightly, Dickensian father who is dashingly portrayed by Bill Nighy (the Science Guy-ee). In lovely, rom-com fashion, Tim uses his newfound time-defying powers not to “shag Helen of Troy” or “kill Hitler”—reasonable pursuits his powers will not permit—but find love. Or at least something resembling love.
Tim’s summertime infatuation with Charlotte (Margot Robbie), a friend of Tim’s sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), proves early in the film that all the time in the world will not make someone love you. Never mind Tim’s attempts to profess his affection early in their acquaintanceship or later in the summer, before she leaves his hometown of Cornwall—Charlotte rejects Tim’s advances. But when Tim meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), an intelligent, witty American with bangs (because of course she has bangs), the logic that all the time in the world won’t make someone fall in love with you is given a morally complicated caveat. While he can not use time to arouse romantic feelings in another person, he can use time to manipulate another person’s romantic feelings.
Were you to ask Mary how she met Tim, she would tell you that he approached her at her friend Joanna’s (Vanessa Kirby) party, dished out some dazzling takes on the appeal of Kate Moss and whisked her (Mary) away to a fancy dinner and a night of passionate lovemaking. But this is not the first time Mary meets Tim. Unbeknownst to Mary, she met Tim at a dinner, then again at a Kate Moss museum exhibit, then at Joanna’s party—a party that Tim was never formally invited to. At this party, Tim regurgitates Mary’s thoughts on Kate Moss from their museum meeting…one that Mary doesn’t experience in the rest of the film’s timeline or can ever even recall. He also arrives at the party and leaves with Mary before Mary meets Rupert, the man we learn would otherwise become her boyfriend. What was for Mary a serendipitous moment of connection, a moment in which she and her future husband Tim happened to word-for-word share the same affinity for a cultural icon, was in fact a moment of strategic time-traveling choreography. This places pressure on the authenticity of Tim and Mary’s love.
If love is something that happens when people consent to the mortifying ordeal of knowing and being known by one another, neuroses and all, it makes sense that this meet-cute would be technically endearing. But it also isn’t fully consented to if that knowing is a mere performance. Tim knows what to say to Mary to reach her, to conjure this feeling of familiarity between the both of them. While Tim uses said power for good in About Time to help Kit Kat confront her alcoholism, to spend more time with his dying father, to help friends evade devastating failure at work and to bask in the quotidian splendor of life with Mary—who becomes his wife—Tim manipulates Mary to enter into love with her. The fact that Mary never learns about Tim’s power to repeat each moment, to restart a conversation, to relive a sexual experience between the two of them, which gives him an unbridled power in the relationship that I now find deeply unromantic.
Tim, as mentioned earlier, is gawky and sheepish. His physique, alongside his attempts to generally navigate life with a chipper disposition and clean-ish heart, paint him as a harmless man. There’s a legacy of this kind of white man like Tim on screen. The reason that About Time, a film I still deeply cherish, is no longer my favorite romantic comedy is because it—like other time-traveling Casanova films 50 First Dates and Groundhog Day—intermittently propagates reductive ideas that love is simply about showing up on time and saying the right things. Being present for potentially uncomfortable moments, enthusiastically attentive and committed to learning and being learned by another person? You can just do it over until it’s perfect.
While more recent films like Palm Spings subvert the male time-traveler trope by placing the love interests in the same time loop, there are plenty of films with romantic plots or subplots centered around a man who exploits his time-bending powers. The ethical question with rom-com Casanovas is that the “love” they cultivate with the people they desire is undergirded by their possession of infinite time to become fluent in another person’s humanity and proficient in reciting things that will entice said person without said person being in the know. This power imbalance gives these time lords boundless access to their romantic interest and helps them evade accountability, responsibility and the vulnerability that comes with an equal relationship.
Although 50 First Dates’ Henry (Adam Sandler) doesn’t time travel himself, his manipulation of another person’s relationship to time presents a similar moral issue to that in About Time. Henry struggles with commitment and uses his life in Oahu to habitually sleep with and then ghost tourists. Enter Lucy (Drew Barrymore), a sweet blonde with a brain injury who relives the same day in perpetuity. Henry fetishizes Lucy’s lapse in memory and uses each new day and his memory of their encounters to endear himself to her. It is a suitable dynamic for Henry: His emotional and romantic needs are met but there isn’t pressure to be consistent or available. Henry is ultimately caught and socially punished for his manipulation of Lucy, but for a time his courting—in which he helps her build houses out of waffles, pretends to be disabled so she will pity him and stages a mugging so she will notice him—is all still coded as romantic, just because he his vying for her affection. Unfortunately, a man’s willingness to strain for romance rather than reach for earnest intimacy is celebrated. Yes king, swindle us and give us nothing real!
Phil Connors (Bill Murray) falls into a similar pattern in Groundhog Day. When Phil recognizes the time loop, he uses it to learn about and seduce Rita (Andie MacDowell) to no avail. It is only when Henry and Phil use their relationships to time to reflect on their behaviors, atone and become more self-actualized, altruistic men that they “get the girl.” While Henry and Phil rethink their manipulative streaks and are determined to do right in the end, their initial posturing is still troublingly perceived as romantic. Romance is not about pandering for the attention of another person. Genuine, nascent love must be earned and mutually worked towards, and hinges on transparency. Just as all the time in the world cannot force someone into love, a one-sided and infinite access to time cannot result in the kind of intimacy that arises gradually between consenting, receptive people.
Romantic comedies—with or without time-traveling subplots—use the kind of laundry list, name-dropping love discussed here for the sake of narrative economy, so that audiences can infer two characters are destined for one another and believe their relationship sooner. This is enticing as a viewer because it suggests that things as inconsequential in real life as shared favorite colors, songs, etc. are legitimate indicators of the possibility of lasting love. These overlaps make love feels accessible, even inevitable, and substitute more emotionally laborious albeit necessary things with prescient meet-cute moments. Time-travelers like Tim further enhance the dangerous luster of these meet-cutes because they can use their powers to deliberately craft them over and over and over again. What we find alluring about the effortlessness of laundry list love is not merely the suggestion that someday we’ll be at a party and someone will say all the right things, but that genuine love can be this thoughtless, yet still somehow be worthwhile. Time-traveling romancers falsely suggest this kind of easy, genuine love can be achieved through manipulative means.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.