Richard Curtis has all but solidified his legacy in the mind of female audience members alike as the preeminent bard of the British chick-flick. He wrote and produced Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, wrote both Bridget Jones movies, and directed Love Actually, which is quite possibly the chick-flick to end all chick-flicks. He’s a permanent part of the fabric of modern romantic comedies, and his new film is no different. What is different in About Time is its main conceit that attempts to inject its broad sense of comedy with a hint of downplayed sci-fi as an imaginative way to mine familiar sentimental territory. You see, the main character Tim (played by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson) is informed on his 21st birthday by his father (the incomparably British Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can travel through time.
There’s no DeLorean and no Loopers involved, just the ability for them to somehow go into a darkened area, think of the point in the past they want to go to, clench their fists, and magically appear as their past selves. Informed by his dad that using their ability for selfish purposes like making tons of money would just make him miserable, Tim instead uses it to promptly go back to attempt to fix his shyness and find true love, so he begins by jumping back to a New Year’s party to kiss a girl he always meant to kiss. Sounds a bit sappy, right? The conceit is clever in that it plays to our inherent desire to go back and fix things we did wrong, but it’s the kind of thing that comes across as merely an interesting idea rather than the basis for an entire movie.
The film’s overreliance on Tim being able to go back and fix things is comically effective when he jumps back to whittle away his awkwardness and learn to play the cool guy, but once a conversely dramatic feeling is built into the plot—like when he goes back to try and save his drunken sister from a car accident—the audience can smell it a mile away, and it grows tiring because of the anticipation of the plot’s dependence on being able to use the same exaggerated trick over and over again.
To mask the plot’s shortcomings, Curtis attempts to fill out Tim’s life with a series of familial and romantic relationships that test his conscience and his ability to accept the life he’s been given. The aforementioned Nighy is one main connection, and is responsible for many of the most genuinely funny moments in the film. The father and son bond acts as the primary fulcrum of both the comedy and the piled-on drama, but both Gleeson and Nighy strike an authentic balance that ground some of the overwrought moments in a delightfully human element. Nighy is so at ease and so charming here that you just kind of want him to be your dad somehow. The other main connection is Mary (Rachel McAdams) as Tim’s love interest. McAdams has definitely mined this kind rom-com territory before, and aside from Terrence Malick’s most recent film To the Wonder and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris I can’t remember the last time she wasn’t playing this type of token doe-eyed girlfriend part, and even in those she’s still “the girlfriend.” The movie commits the cardinal sin of constantly implying that McAdams is somehow bland or homely, making her spout off obviously misguided “Who, me?” bits of flirty dialogue meant to offer Tim an equally bashful soul mate.
The two together are completely serviceable if not a bit mismatched. The film suffers from constant montages that skip over large swaths of their relationship, ostensibly leaving out all the definitive reasons why they are supposed to be soul mates. On top of that, the two distractingly stay the same age over the film’s expansive time frame. I have a hard time believing that Mary looks completely unchanged despite giving birth to a handful of kids, while Tim’s work status as an important London lawyer is a bit hampered by the fact that Gleeson always looks like he just celebrated his eighteenth birthday.
Overall it’s still a very heartfelt and well-done film. Curtis is definitely no slouch when it comes to the waterworks, but as with a lot of chick-flicks most of the emotion is so manufactured that it’s up to your personal preference whether you want to put up with it or not. I went along with it and was taken by only a few things, but some people I know were bawling their eyes out. Go in with a box of Kleenex knowing exactly what you’re going to get and you’ll come out satisfied with its oversimplified message and sincerely sappy storyline.