Director Richard Curtis has brought us some of the loveliest romantic comedies in recent years: "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Love Actually," and "Notting Hill." All three of those films had terrific casts that created interesting characters that had real dilemmas that made us care about the outcome. Curtis’ latest, "About Time," is a similar sugary quirky confection, but without the surprise inside.
Let me explain: the film tells the tale of Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) who at the age of 21 is told by his father that all the men in the family can travel through time. All they have to do is go into a dark place, clench their fists together, and think of where in their past they’d like to go. Conveniently, there really hasn’t been much of a problem with the butterfly effect (a throw-away comment), but it does afford them the ability to get things right. With this newfound information, Tim is able to help the people he loves and go after what he truly wants: A girl.
Enter Mary (Rachel McAdams) - a slightly dowdy (I know, it’s a stretch) gal who works as a reader for a publisher in London. They meet cute at a Dining in the Dark restaurant and exchange numbers. But when Tim has to help out his grumpy landlord and goes back in time to do so, he changes his past and he never meets Mary - even though he remembers that he did. Eventually, he woos her again even though he has to manipulate past situations to get there. The two fall in love, and they begin a life together.
The film is sprinkled with eccentric British folk like his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), who has a penchant for purple, bare feet, and choosing the wrong men. There’s Dad (Bill Nighy), with whom he has a close-knit relationship; his humorless Mum (Lindsay Duncan); his confused Uncle D (Richard Cordery); his bumbling best friend Rory (Joshua McGuire); and his jerk of a landlord, Harry (Tom Hollander).
But while it’s a charming and admittedly entertaining film, here’s the main problem: There is no conflict. Tim and his family are as close-knit as close-knit can be. You have to wonder if that’s because Dad keeps going back in time and changing everything he does wrong (or everything that goes wrong) so that they can have a perfect life. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting for Tim to realize this and tell his father that he needed to be able to stumble and fall at life so that he could grow?
Tim also has a stellar relationship with Mary. The two are made for each other, and rarely do they ever have a major disagreement. And if things go wrong, Tim can always get a re-do. But those re-dos are few and far between, because around the halfway mark the time-travel conceit isn’t as utilized as one might expect. If it is used and causes a negative chain reaction, then Tim simply fixes things fairly quickly and on life goes.
What’s worse is that if you really think about it, Tim (and his father’s) ability to fix everything they do wrong or to manipulate situations is fairly disrespectful to those around them. When sex goes bad, you can just go back in time and do it again. The thing is, the person you are having sex with doesn’t realize this, but you do (there’s a horror movie in there, somewhere.) In short, the men in this family all appear to be selfish: They create a perfect life for themselves and their family without allowing their family the choice to succeed or fail on their own accord. The only time one character is forced to make herself a better person is because if Tim changes the past, his life is altered in a negative way. It would have been very easy to give this film a clear point. In the end, there is a sweet message, but it’s not earned. It sort of comes out of nowhere, and while you agree with the conceit, the film wasn’t really building up to that anyway.
"About Time" is a film that needed a few more passes on its script. The idea is terrific and combining it with a rom-com sensibility has the makings of a classic film. Unfortunately, it just meanders along charming us with great performances. Domhnall Gleeson is adorable in his first starring role, proving that he doesn’t have to play the side love-interest ("Anna Karenina") or back-up to the Potter kids. (He played Ron Weasley’s brother Bill).
McAdams is her usual endearing self, although she’s in danger of playing the same character in all of her romantic comedies. Had there been conflict... had she discovered her husband’s secret gift... there could have been some real emotional moments for her, and a true character arc for Tim. Instead, it’s all just cute and easy. It’ll put a smile on your face and a chuckle on your lips, but it all feels a bit too neat. And, surprisingly, sometimes you need a little struggle in life to make it worthwhile.