There have been lots of romance movies where time is warped, looped or frappéd — from Groundhog Day to Time Traveler's Wife. But in the new movie About Time, from Richard Curtis (Notting Hill), the dude has total control over his time-journeys, which means that everything goes pretty smoothly for him. Yawn.
In case you were wondering just why the men in movies like the aforementioned Groundhog and Wife never have control over their time-whappery, About Time provides a pretty good answer: If you can manipulate time with absolute control, and your only goal in life is to find a girlfriend and then have a smooth relationship with her, then you'll have a pretty easy time of it.
In About Time, Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) turns 18 and learns a family secret: all of the men in his family can travel through time. In practice, what this means is that they can jump back to any moment in their own timelines, so that if Tim wants to change something that happened to him two days earlier, he just jumps back two days and does things differently. He can't actually "time travel," strictly speaking — he can just rewind back to an earlier point in his own life, more or less at will.
Tim uses this amazing gift to woo and keep Mary, played by Rachel McAdams. And there's the main problem with this film — the relationship between the two of them doesn't have that much chemistry, nor do they face any real challenges as a couple. They get along pretty well from the moment they meet, and they continue to get along pretty well until the end of the film.
In fact, the main setback that Tim encounters is actually somewhat insulting to his girlfriend — he accidentally changes something else in his past, so he doesn't meet Mary after all. And in this revised timeline, Mary's dating Rupert, another guy that she met soon after that, and he's a total plonker. Tim has to go back a bit earlier in his timeline and meet Mary before she meets Rupert — because Mary's so lonely and desperate, she'll become joined at the hip to the first guy who shows interest in her, basically.
And it really is true that Curtis isn't interested in the women in this film — it's not just that the women can't time travel, it's also that they have no personalities or interior lives. Besides McAdams' character, there's Tim's sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), who's a hot mess — and Tim's one attempt to save her is sort of peremptory and gets abandoned the moment there's a setback. (He even restores to the timeline, some nasty injuries she's suffered, even though there's no reason he can't spare her those.) This is very much a film about men's feelings and regrets — and women are sort of incidental, not least because you can always run rings around them by changing history over and over.
The weird thing is, About Time is actually two different movies. There's the lukewarm love story, and then there's an absolutely smashing father-son story, which should have been the central focus of the movie. One wonders if Richard Curtis tried to pitch this as a father-son story, only to be told that he's known for rom-coms at this point — and thus, he felt obliged to insert a dead fish of a romance.
Tim's father is played by Bill Nighy, and whenever he's on screen the film suddenly becomes brilliant — and the story of Tim and his dad is actually heartbreaking and wonderful, in exactly the way that the movie's romance storyline isn't.
When the father first tells Tim about their shared time-travel ability, the dad cautions him not to use it to gain wealth or fame — and over the course of the film, we get to see just how TKTK actually has used it in his own life: basically, as a way to make every day count as much as possible, and to live with as much joy as possible. And yet, in a twist reminiscent of Four Weddings and a Funeral, it turns out that even the near-immortality granted by the ability to rewind your life over and over doesn't mean that people stick around forever — because there are limits, after all.
Somewhere buried in the goopy mess of About Time is a really beautiful story about cherishing every moment with the people you love, and about the fact that we all go back and revisit our pasts (and mentally rewrite our pasts, too) all the time. Curtis is trying to say something very profound about our relationship with time — but he gets sidetracked saying something incredibly empty about the damp-squib relationship between one man and one woman.