About Time Universal Pictures
Director: Richard Curtis
Screenplay: Richard Curtis
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Will Merrick, Joshua McGuire and Margot Robbie
Rated R / 2 hours, 4 minutes
November 8, 2013
(out of four)
About Time is a time-travel romance that's less interested in how (or if) its sci-fi premise really works, and more interested in what it can reflect about human relationships. This, as it turns out, works both to its benefit and its disadvantage, perhaps in equal measure.
In a sense it's liberating because, in ignoring his film's own internal logic, writer/director Richard Curtis can spend most of his time building links between characters, between events and places, between moments in time. His affection for his characters and their lives is achingly sincere, and he wants to live in the moments they create as much, and as deeply, as possible. So when Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by his father (the great Bill Nighy) that the men in the family can travel in time - into their own past, that is; fix or relive every moment of their lives - it moves immediately into his search for a great romance, driving the film into pure rom-com territory and away from its overtly fantastical implications.
After a false start with a beautiful friend of the family who spends the summer with Tim's family, he finally finds The One, a few years later, in the form of Mary (who else but Rachel McAdams). He falls for her after one rather brilliantly staged evening together, because how can you not. But when, later that night, he goes back in time to save the career of his playwright roommate, Harry (Tom Hollander), he finds he can't have it both ways - save the play and meet the girl. So he's forced to manufacture a way to meet Mary again. And then again.
In part, it seems like an excuse to have three or four separate Meet Cutes in one movie between one couple, but what makes it interesting is how well it speaks to the idea of recapturing moments that simply cannot be replicated. We've all had moments in our lives that become emblazoned in our memories, to the point that the reality couldn't possibly be quite as grand as what we recall. Here, with Tim, he eventually gets it "right" with Mary, but he never has a moment quite so magical as that first night - which she, of course, can never remember.
But here is where the Curtis' lean toward romanticism gets problematic. Tim is essentially the permanent decision-maker for everyone's lives - at least insofar as the things he can partially or completely control - and that means making choices. There's a game-changing moment a little over halfway through in which Tim fixes a terrible wrong, and returns to the present only to realize he has altered the life he had been living. He comes to the realization that he can't always make everything exactly the way he wants it to be - certain things are beyond his control.
His devastated realization is a stirring moment, until Curtis changes the rules by allowing him to somehow, I don't know, un-go-back-in-time, and return everything to the way it was. If you think about this film's version of time-travel for two seconds, you'll realize that Curtis has opened up the possibility of multiple timelines. By our understanding of what Tim can and cannot do, the moment he would have to change to undo what he's just undone no longer exists, so how can he return to it? It doesn't seem like Curtis cares - the objective is that Tim learns an important lesson about the power his ability does and does not give him.
Still, it makes absolutely no sense within the film's own logic, and illustrates Curtis' tendency to be manipulatively optimistic, and to cheat his way into happy endings. To make matters worse, when Tim finally sets things right, he manages to still make sure everything turns out as happily as possible, albeit in a different way. This undermines the lesson Tim has just learned. You can't tell us that life - particularly this life - is about difficult choices, and then turn right around and show us how easy it is to make everything rosy. It makes the movie seem disingenuous - at best. It feels like Curtis wrote a heartbreaking event for Tim to face, but just didn't have the courage to go through with it.
That being said, there's a lot here that's not only very honest from a human relationship standpoint, but also quite perceptive about the way we live, and think about, our lives. In Tim, Curtis essentially gives us an avatar for something of an ultimate fantasy. Every one of us has wanted to go back and fix things, or do them better. To speak up when we stayed silent; to do something different when we embarrassed ourselves; to go for it instead of letting the opportunity pass by.
If Curtis had had the inclination, he could have taken Tim's time-travel exploits and really complicated matters, but that may have sacrificed what the film does so well with its central romance. (Then again, maybe not - the similarly themed Eternal Sunshine piled on the sci-fi complications and was all the more emotionally devastating because of it.)
Its own self-inflicted hiccups aside, this remains a mostly authentic examination of memory and regret, and a celebration of the beauty and madness that life throws at us. And for all his big emotional and existential thoughts about love and death and fate, Curtis retains a sharp sense of humor. And given that I find humor to be the greatest thing in life, that makes About Time seem all the wiser.