A crowd-pleasing confection from writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral), About Time spices the usual rom-com sentimentality with a sci-fi twist: our hero can travel in time at will, by shutting himself in a closet and just thinking about a prior time in his life.
Of course, most people would use this ability to win the lottery, become rich and famous, or heck, to prevent future disasters and save lives. But Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) just wants to find love and happiness. Unfortunately, this is the one thing time travel can’t really help him with; as he learns early in the film, you can’t make someone fall in love with you.
But he knows that spark when he finds it, in Mary (Rachel McAdams), a girl he meets on a blind date – a literal blind date, in one of those dining-in-the-dark restaurants. They hit it off, he gets her number, and then… oh, he just has to go back in time and fix something else. And now, in an alternate future – oh darn. They’ve never met.
This sets up a number of charming scenes in which Tim continually travels back in time to try to recreate that magic feeling. Why he doesn’t just go back and fix the other problem – his friend’s play – in some other way so he could do the restaurant thing again, I don’t know. But using time travel to try to ignite that spark that he knows is there – that’s a really neat twist on the usual rom-com trappings. It could easily make an entire Groundhog Day-like film, and I’d have been overly happy if that were the case.
But it’s not. Instead, About Time bites off more than it can chew – way more.
The schmaltzy romantic stuff here works really well, as you might expect from the director, and Gleeson and (especially) McAdams make for appealing leads. Curtis handles the romance as capably as he’s done in past films, and we’re really rooting for the two to get together.
But then they do get together, surprisingly early in the film, and the romantic portion of the film is pretty much finished. Now, it’s about Tim’s entire life – his relationship with his father (Bill Nighy), who can also travel through time, his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), a troubled spirit who, distressingly, Tim doesn’t seem to help until it’s (almost) too late, and his infant daughter.
The daughter is a tricky one. Tim soon finds that if he travels back in time before she was born (or conceived?) that he will lose her – he can’t control the sperm that made her. So now Tim is faced with difficult decisions based on the “time travel” rules that Curtis has created: he can’t bring others back with him in time, he can’t travel forward in time, and if he goes back before his daughter is born, he’ll lose her.
And that’s where the film completely falls apart, as each one of those rules is violated – without explanation – whenever the script finds it convenient. All time travel movies have some internal logic issues, but Curtis spells things out for us here in black & white – and then proceeds to trample all over his own arbitrary conditions. It’s an unforgivable offense that makes it almost impossible to interact with the film.
Which is a shame, because the romantic stuff works so well, and the father-son/sister-brother stuff could have worked well without all the shameless manipulation based around the nonsense time travel rules. Curtis should have learned from films like Somewhere in Time or The Time Traveller’s Wife, which bought themselves a little wiggle room with a more ambiguous approach.
Still, About Time has been put together with polished location cinematography (by Kramer Morgenthau), a quick pace, appealing performances, and an excellent soundtrack (featuring music by Nick Cave, The Killers, Ellie Goulding, and others). I enjoyed it just fine when I wasn’t thinking about it, and I bet you will, too.