About Time: Though Richard Curtis is probably an auteur and at very least a brand-name in romantic comedy, About Time is actually only his third film as a director. Before his directorial debut, the much-loved-and-loathed Christmas-themed mega-romance Love Actually (the movie that launched a thousand terrible ensem-romcoms, or at least a few), he built his rep as a guru of the genre with the screenplays for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Before that, he contributed to less romantic and even more British comic enterprises like Blackadder and Mr. Bean. About Time finds him grappling with loftier ambitions—one of which may be to forget anything he may have learned about comedy. The first chunk of the new movie is certainly pitched as comedy as it introduces young Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and his loving family, including his parents (Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan) and free-spirited sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). When Tim’s dad first lets slip that the men on his side of the family can travel in time—requiring only a dark space, a clench of the fists, and a thought of the moment in their lives they’d like to revisit—it’s treated as a magical-realism lark, as Tim uses his newfound power primarily for retakes of embarrassing and very English-oriented social screw-ups and faux pas.
In the wake of The Office or Peep Show, or, you know, pretty much any filmed comedies that are actually funny, these situations have a wan, labored cutesiness; rather than embrace the wild possibilities of even limited time travel, Curtis spends time introducing new pseudo-comic characters: a raffish best mate for Tim; a meek, dorky other best mate for Tim; a cranky older playwright to pointlessly serve as Tim’s roommate and say swear words like “shit” abruptly and, I guess, hilariously; a hot girl to serve as warm-up for when Tim meets the true love of his life; and, finally, that true love, Mary (Rachel McAdams). It’s as if Curtis assumes Love Actually fans will riot if he doesn’t have at least a dozen thinly drawn characters in the mix, no matter how little any of them contribute in terms of comedy. (Or maybe he’s trying to emulate the tapestry of more magical comedies like Amelie, a poster of which adorns the wall of Tim’s family home.) Most troubling, in fact, are the supporting members of that family; it’s actually difficult to ascertain just how many of them are suffering from mental health problems, and how many are supposed to be delightfully quirky.
Indeed, large swaths of About Time‘s first hour suggest that Curtis has lost touch not just with comedy but with reality, the kind of careless portraits drawn from inside a screenwriter’s bubble. Tim’s job as a lawyer appears to materialize without any university attendance, while Mary’s occupation is a “reader” for a publishing company, a job that inspires cutesy ribbing from Tim, apparently not having heard of editors, or perhaps publishing at all. Beyond cheerfully false-sounding details, beyond even the cheerfully murky rules of Curtis’s own time-travel system (sometimes time-travelers seem to have their memories altered by the changes they make when they return to the present, sometimes not), the writer-director barely gives any thought to how and why the movie’s central conceit would be used. Several of the more selfless events Tim tries to fix, both comedic and dramatic, are alarmingly stupid: at one point, he travels back to make sure an actor in his friend’s play won’t forget his lines (because this is said, inexplicably, to harm the already-successful playwright’s career in any way—so go ahead and add “playwright” to the list of jobs Curtis has no interest in researching); later, he mucks around with his life all to stop a decidedly non-fatal car crash.
And yet: as the movie presses forward in its own timeline, as extraneous characters recede to the background, Curtis does get at something more poignant. It’s clear from the outset—from the would-be novelistic language he employs in writing Tim’s opening narration—that he wants to do something grander and more heartbreaking than mere boy-getting-girl mechanics, and at its best, About Time has the maturity to step beyond first-blush romance (like a few of the better Love Actually subplots did). One of his more poetic images has nothing to do with magical-realism time travel, focusing instead on the everyday kind: a montage tracks Tim and Mary’s relationship as they pass the same subway-passage musician over and over as his song plays continuously. As their life together goes on, the focus returns to Tim’s family, and the film seems to be inspired by those scenes from the end of Back to the Future where Marty McFly returns to a 1985 he has inadvertently altered for the better.
Having two potential time-travelers—Tim and his father, played with invaluable, understated charm by Nighy—finally adds richness to the movie’s ideas, rather than dragging them to sub-romcom levels. About Time wants to be the kind of movie that lulls an audience with sweet whimsy before blindsiding them with emotion. Instead, it lulls them by flirting with awfulness for the better part of an hour, and then the emotional blindsiding comes through anyway. Or it did for me, anyway; rarely have I had such mixed feelings about a movie that made me cry. As it turns out, Curtis’s ambition serves him well; it’s his old-pro instincts that fail him.