Time travel is one of the more hit-or-miss story conceits in film; it’s certain to get people’s attention, but almost as certain to expose the film to a barrage of criticism related to logic and the butterfly effect. In the hands of filmmaker Richard Curtis, however, today’s finest purveyor of charming little films (“Love, Actually,” “Pirate Radio” among other notable writing credits), time travel gets personal.
Whereas so many movies use time travel for exploitative comedic purposes (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), “About Time” more accurately represents what someone would actually use time travel for in their personal life. Time travel doesn’t completely take hold of the story; it’s simply the key player in main character Tim’s (Domhnall Gleeson) quest for romance.
Like the best of us, Tim has a penchant for fudging things up the first time. So when his father (Billy Nighy) reveals the men in their family can time travel to different points throughout their lifetime (except the yet-lived future), he takes advantage of correcting a number of social missteps, such as kissing a girl a New Year’s Eve party. When the jaw- dropping gorgeous Charlotte (Margot Robbie) stays at their Cornwall home for the summer, Tim soon learns that time travel only goes so far in swaying someone’s feelings. He moves to London to pursue law in the fall, where he endeavors to at last find a girlfriend, and he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams).
If it doesn’t sound like “About Time” has a compelling plot, that’s because it doesn’t. Yet it doesn’t suck either. That’s how brilliant a writer Curtis is, slapping dumb-looking smiles and movie-watchers’ faces with clever dialogue, humorous scenarios and compelling romance. McAdams, unquestionably one of the best the romance genre has ever seen, runs away with this material, which she simply couldn’t do in films such as, quite appropriately, “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” Gleeson also fits perfectly with Curtis’ style; he’s humorous, awkward and charming all at the same time.
Unlike many who watch this film will be lead to believe, the movie is not about Tim’s pursuit of Mary. It’s not a two-hour version of the sequence in “Groundhog Day” in which Bill Murray’s Phil Connors attempts to use “time travel” to perfectly woo Andie MacDowell’s Rita through a series of corrected screw-ups. The narrative scope of “About Time” is much larger in terms of chronology, spanning the entirety of Tim’s young adulthood. In fact, three- quarters of the way in, it’s not even about Tim and Mary’s romance at all.
Eventually, “About Time” becomes about the challenges of living life, enduring the bad and appreciating the good, and what the ability to time travel would really teach us about living day to day and treasuring the present. An expected theme and conclusion indeed, but this final section gets a little long and tiresome without any riveting conflict. Still, Curtis has crafted characters we connect with strongly enough to hold up this last leg of his film.
All that said, it’s easy to poke holes in the logic of the time travel in “About Time,” but the concept makes enough sense that it’s not too distracting and you can still enjoy the characters, the romance and the lessons learned. Curtis might not be one of the greatest filmmakers working, but he understands what it takes to elevate a romantic comedy from the rest of the cheesy pack, and that takes tremendous skill.
- About Time
- Written and Directed by Richard Curtis
- Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson