“About Time” – film review (C)

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I have said many times that I love time-travel stories.  I also have a great affinity for Rachel McAdams and British humor/humour, so I expected to very much enjoy About Time.  The problem is that with the same brush with which writer/director Richard Curtis used to paint some originality with time travel, he also painted the story into a corner.

After another boring New Years Eve party at the seaside home of the Lake family, Mr. Lake (Bill Nighy) invites 21-year old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) to a father-son chat at which he tells the awkward but friendly boy a family secret:  the men in their family have always had the ability to travel back in time.  Tim, certain he will prove his father is nuts, follows instructions to find a dark place, close his eyes, clench his fists, and think of where in the past he wishes go.  He then finds himself at the previous night’s boring party where he finds the girl he didn’t but should have kissed.  He kisses her.  Then he appears back in the present to quiz his father about the time travel thing.

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Gleeson and Nighy

Time travel stories always have rules, but About Time has fewer than others.  You can’t go into the future, only where you’ve been.  Apparently there is no danger of upsetting the space-time continuum because you always appear as yourself in that moment, so you can’t actually see yourself and freak yourself out.  Mr. Lake hasn’t seen any kind of “Butterfly Effect,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.  So far, so good.

Tim moves from Cornwall to London, rents a room with a struggling playwright, becomes an attorney, and hopes to find a girlfriend.  He and a friend have a literal blind date with two women in a restaurant at which patrons dine in total darkness, thus taking appearance out of the moment and places all emphasis on personality.  Tim’s wins over Mary (Rachel McAdams), gets her phone number, and plans to meet again.

He arrives home lighter than air, but the distraught playwright brings him back down.  His show received crappy reviews because an actor forgot his line during a critical scene.  Like Clark Kent, Tim travels back in time, helps the actor remember his lines, and the playwright is now highly praised.  Unfortunately, having gone back in time, Tim subsequently missed the dinner with Mary and now must find another way to meet and convince her to go out with him.

McAdams and Gleeson

McAdams and Gleeson

These seems like it should be the typical romantic comedy/time travel conflict.  Boy meets girl.  Boy and girl fall in love.  Boy uses time travel to help a friend.  Boy helps friend but screws up love-falling with girl.  Boy tries again.  And again.  And again.  However, it only takes one “again.”  The rest of the film is not so much about the time travel as it is the precious time we have on Earth with our loved ones and the things we need to say and do with them before they and we are gone.

Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Anna Karenina) is lovably awkward in pursuit of love, life, and happiness.  If About Time had gone the way you’d expect a Time-Travel/RomCom to go, Time would have been stumbling down steps while trying to pull on his pants while chasing Mary before she goes to the dance with Marty McFly – or something like that.  Instead, he quite easily reconnects with Mary, they quite easily get engaged and have kids, and things are relatively witty but simple.

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A “mousy” McAdams

McAdams (Wedding Crashers, Midnight in Paris) is more of a straight woman than a character, doing nothing outstanding enough to take any attention away from Gleeson.  Even with a harsh haircut, she’s still the cutest thing in the room.  As Mary, she’s got a hidden promiscuity and a strange longing for Kate Moss.  It’s nice in real life, but she’s rather irrelevant to the story, and part of the blame goes to the story itself.

As previously stated, the time-travel rules in About Time are few, but the story seems to not notice how it hinges upon breaking one particular rule.  After Tim and Mary have a baby girl, Tim’s unstable sister Kit (Lydia Wilson) is injured in a way that I won’t spoil.  Tim of course attempts to go back in time to help his sister, but upon returning he inadvertently affects his child.  Now he has to decide which is more important – saving his sister from harm or the residual effect on his child.

Regardless of the choice, which I also won’t spoil, the logic is lacking.  At no point did anything else seem to change so greatly when Tim traveled back in time, so why was there a change this time?  I guess when Mr. Lake said he had not noticed a Butterfly Effect, he also left the door open.  Then there’s another crossroads at which Tim must face an even greater effect regarding going back in time, although that comes too late to be any kind of substantial conflict.  So insubstantial that I completely forgot about it until reminded just now while discussing the film.

What I like about About Time is that it did not follow the tried-and-true Time-travel/RomCom formula.  What I didn’t like about it is that it produced nothing better than the formula, which leaves me no choice but to wish it had stayed with the formula.  Obviously, RomCom’s still work because we see at least one good one every year.  And when they’re done well enough, nobody complains about the formula.

About Time is stuck somewhere between The Time Traveler’s Wife and Groundhog Day.  Unfortunately, instead of combining them to make something even better, Curtis (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love, Actually) might have been hoping that the ingredients would somehow blend into something tasty.  Instead, it was more like mixing oil and vinegar, and it just didn’t really come together at all.  There are cute moments, but by the time the credits were rolling, I was thinking, “about time it’s over.”

Teacher gives it a C.

21 thoughts on ““About Time” – film review (C)

  1. I saw About Time back in September when it came out here in the UK, and loved it. Some of the logic didn’t quite work for me, but then I always find that with time travel stories, so I just set that aside. I found it touching and I enjoyed the characters, it wasn’t fast-paced and exciting, it was gentle, sometimes gentle can be boring, but not this time for me. By the way Rich, have you seen Primer? I just saw it on Netflix a couple of days ago, I liked it, but really couldn’t follow what was happening for large parts of it! (But that’s not unusual for me with movies!). I’d be interested to know what you thought of it as a time-travel story fan.

  2. C is too harsh. B- at worst. I like that it was about the development of the relationships. And I quite liked the characters and the easy way the movie paced itself, not too much drama.

    The moment between the Mary’s upon meeting at the beach quite solidified these extraordinary women in my mind leaving no issue (at least for me) with the movies obvious emphasis on the male characters.

    I didn’t mind the hitch or hiccups. In someway I understood the DNA creation thing as being a demarcation line. But perhaps because as of late I am vitally aware of the strings that tie family together through DNA. It is said that we reside inside our grandmother’s wombs- as ovum fully formed in our mother’s ovaries inside our grandmother’s wombs. Consider that thought when thinking about the binding of DNA. At least one half of it resides inside three generations at once. See the demarcation now?

    Ultimately though it is the message behind the movie I most enjoyed. Hence your C too low a grade. 🙂 To love each day, taking the time to notice the inconsequential, to appreciate what you have and to love fully what could be greater.

    Me though, I’d have a boy if I were Tim. I’d have him go back once more to see his Dad and change the last child. I know. Don’t say it. But I’d want my own moments after I’m gone..

  3. It may be because it reminded me a lot of Groundhog Day that I loved it so much, or that I’m just a sappy romantic at heart – but I loved it! 🙂

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