About Time (United Kingdom, 2013)

November 04, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
About Time Poster

Time travel stories are tricky things. Although there's no hard-and-fast way to develop one, consistency is a key. As a screenwriter, when you're dealing with things like reworking history and spinning off alternate universes, it's necessary to stick to a series of established rules. Figure out how time travel works in your story and don't vary from it. By violating this basic precept, writer/director Richard Curtis (supposedly marking his final time behind the camera) turns his romantic fable into a mish-mash of contradictions and contrivances. With more attention to detail, this could have worked, but the time travel aspects are so badly executed that the movie as a whole falters and eventually rips apart at the seams.

We know from Curtis' past endeavors that he's a romantic, so the presence of sentimentality (bordering at times on mawkishness) isn't a surprise. However, where films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually can boast a portion of incisive wit to go along with the soft center, About Time's sweetness tends toward saccharine. There's a bit of Groundhog Day here, only not as clever. There's some of The Time Traveler's Wife (italicized by Rachel McAdams' participation in both projects), but not as emotionally effective. And there are echoes of The Butterfly Effect without the overt darkness. In fact, while it's possible to compare About Time to numerous other films, the comparison will rarely be favorable toward this movie.

The central conceit is that 21-year old Tim (Domhall Gleeson) can travel in time. There are limitations, of course: he can only venture backward in his own personal time stream and he has to find a dark, quiet spot to do the deed. I have no problem with this; for there to be a story, you have to accept this premise. The problems emerge from the inconsistencies that result from Curtis changing the rules on the fly.

Tim learns the ropes from his father (Bill Nighy), who is also a time traveler. Then he starts trying things on his own. His primary goal in life is to get a girlfriend. He sets his sights on a gorgeous blond named Charlotte (Margot Robbie) but that doesn't work. Up next is Mary (Rachel McAdams). It takes three meet cutes before Tim and Mary have a life together but Tim's occasional time traveling adventures threaten to mess up their happy home. However, this being a Richard Curtis movie, things turn out all right in the end.

The actors do capable jobs with their material. Domhall Gleeson, who often plays slightly awkward secondary characters, is affable and amusing, but not really leading man material in a romantic comedy. Rachel McAdams plays a part she can probably do in her sleep and, to be truthful, she doesn't bring a lot to the role except a nice smile and a pretty face. Mary isn't much of a character - beyond being Tim's life goal, she's mostly a blank slate. Bill Nighy, as is almost always the case, shamelessly steals scenes. The same is true of Lydia Wilson, who play's Tim's flighty sister, Kit Kat. I don't recall having seen her in anything previously, although I wouldn’t mind additional future exposure. Based on her work here, she seems equally at home with comedy and drama.

Although About Time doesn't work as a whole, there are a few memorable scenes. One that stands out is the first meeting between Tim and Mary, which takes place in a restaurant where everything is in total blackness. Later, there are a few touching moments between Tim and his dad, although the final one ends with an unforgiveable cheat. It's okay for Curtis to want to manipulate the audience but doing it by invalidating his "cardinal rule" is a poor approach.

About Time may work better for those who don't really pay attention to the logic of the narrative. This seems to have been written for those willing to ignore internal inconsistencies and just "go with the flow." The basic framework is about a nerd getting the girl and settling down to have a life with her - solid material for a middling dramatic comedy. It's ironic that the spice Curtis adds to the mix results in a noxious flavor. On the whole, I could see why some might call About Time "pleasant" and "inoffensive." But if Curtis wanted to write a story involving time travel, he should have at least expended the requisite effort to do something that's consistent and makes sense, rather than just making things up as he goes along. Some viewers may not care but, for those who do, it's pretty damn inexcusable.

About Time (United Kingdom, 2013)

Director: Richard Curtis
Cast: Domhall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Richard Cordery, Tom Hollander
Screenplay: Richard Curtis
Cinematography: John Guleserian
Music: Nick Laird-Clowes
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2013-11-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1