June 2024

About Time (2013)

DIRECTOR: Richard Curtis

CAST: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy


Writer-director Richard Curtis might not stray out of his romantic comedy comfort zone (he was previously the screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’ Diary, and the writer-director of Love Actually), but for his latest installment, he’s souped it up with a time travel twist.  Actually, given how the premise hinges on it, how fast and loose Curtis plays with his own established time travel rules might annoy some sticklers for consistency too much to appreciate the film’s charms, but while riddled with topsy turvy internal logic, About Time is a pleasant, sentimental little romantic comedy-drama that offers an enjoyable diversion for those who appreciate this sort of thing.

The set-up is that Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a gangly, awkward young man, has inherited the time travel abilities that all men in his family have always possessed.  The process is simple enough: find a dark closed space (usually a closet, though a toilet will do in a pinch), clench your fists, visualize the past moment you’re revisiting, and boom, you’re there.  But there are limitations, as explained by his father (Bill Nighy): you can only go backward, and only within your own life (“you can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy”, Nighy dryly notes).  Tim sets out with modest goals; for him, his existence revolves around finding a girlfriend.  His first attempt to woo the model-esque Charlotte (Margot Robbie) doesn’t work out, but then he has a blind date (literally, in a pitch black restaurant where they don’t see each other’s faces until stepping outside afterward) with a shy American, Mary (Rachel McAdams).  It takes three “meet cutes” for them to connect, but eventually Tim works everything out and soon they’re living together and he’s popping the question.  But complications arise when family tragedy strikes and Tim learns that trying to fix the past can change the present, and that some things can’t be fixed.

The problem with About Time isn’t the time travel premise; it’s one of those things where you either just accept it, or you don’t.  The issue arises when Curtis explicitly establishes the rules, and then foregoes them willy nilly as needed by the plot, which makes the proceedings feel contrived and lacking internal consistency.  It’s one thing to establish a fantastical premise like this, but consistency is key for suspension of disbelief; if you’re going to go out of your way to establish your own in-universe rules, then play by them.  Otherwise is sloppy writing bound to irritate and even turn off some viewers.  About Time has too many times where it cheats on its own rules.

For those to whom this stumbling block isn’t enough of a deal-breaker, the movie has a sweet, sentimental charm; like most of Curtis’ other projects, it’s nothing hugely ambitious or groundbreaking, but also like Curtis’ other projects, there’s a sappy romantic core tempered with dry wit and a poignant touch (Four Weddings and a Funeral had a funeral, Love Actually had moments like Liam Neeson’s eulogy to his wife and Emma Thompson stumbling across her husband’s near-infidelity, and About Time has its own subplot that causes the otherwise lightweight proceedings to eventually take a turn for the serious).  Like most of these kinds of British romantic comedies/comedy-dramas, the emphasis is more on wry irreverence generating chuckles than belly laughs, but there’s some comedic highlights, including Tim saving the day when an actor ruins a play’s debut by forgetting his lines onstage, and the number of time traveling retakes the terminally awkward Tim often needs to get things right.  Later in the movie, there’s also a couple affecting scenes between Tim and his father that will no doubt strike an emotional cord with some viewers who long for one last day with a deceased parent.  The central romance between Tim and Mary isn’t one of the standout memorable screen couples, but they’re cute enough and there’s enough easygoing chemistry between Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams to make their dynamic appealing, though it’s eventually the father-son relationship that makes more of an impression than the romantic one.

Domhnall Gleeson, a low-profile character actor who might be best-known as the eldest Weasley brother in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, might at first glance seem unlikely romantic leading man material, but he imbues the dorky Tim with enough awkward charm to make him a likable protagonist.  Rachel McAdams is her usual perky but bland self, though Mary as written is mostly a blank slate who adequately serves her purpose as Tim’s love interest (this is the second time she’s played the love interest of a time traveler, the first being in the much more dramatic and serious The Time Traveler’s Wife opposite Eric Bana).  More scene-stealing is Bill Nighy, who has his moments of being his usual quirky self, but whose role ultimately ends up being more poignant than comedic.  A delightfully nasty Tom Hollander also steals some moments as a misanthropic aspiring playwright who is briefly Tim’s landlord.  Smaller roles include Margot Robbie as Tim’s abortive “first love”, Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mother, Lydia Wilson as his quirky sister “Kit Kat”, and amusing cameos from Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon) and Richard E. Grant (this would be Griffiths’ final film appearance; he passed away several months before its release).

About Time will work better for those who don’t get as hung up on the lack of internal consistency regarding its self-established rules about time travel and are won over by its low-key charms.  Curtis knows how to push the emotional buttons when he wants to, even if at times his approach borders on saccharine.  There’s sad moments, but the message is ultimately “feel good” and life-affirming.  The end result isn’t anything groundbreaking, but a pleasant confection to those willing to overlook a not inconsiderable suspension of disbelief quotient.

* * 1/2