About Time‘s central romance doesn’t involve Rachel “Mean Girls” McAdams or Domhnall “Son of Brendan” Gleeson; the real lovers here are Richard Curtis and the tricky notion of time travel. How else to punch up a story that’s all about the rich existential rewards we reap from living a boring, ordinary life? Curtis employed the deceptive pleasures of coincidence to achieve the same effect in 2003’s Love Actually, though admittedly there’s nothing humdrum about the personal relationships of Prime Ministers and rock gods (or divine intervention, even if that never made the final cut). Here, he overturns a similar stone by using a far more incredible narrative tool for his cause.
The results turn out only somewhat mixed; About Time combines the sappy, charming whimsy of Love Actually with the paradoxical trappings of movies like Looper, leaning on its basic conceit with the express goal of building toward huge cathartic, spiritually moving beats without caring much for things like rules. Whether that’s a problem for you depends on whether you’re a stickler for internal logic or an aficionado of emotional impact; Curtis lays out the “hows”, the “whats”, and the “whys” behind his conception of time travel, and then goes about fudging them left and right when he sees an opportunity to move his audience. Foo to continuity – there are extra tears to be jerked!
Had he dropped the ball in these moments, About Time wouldn’t be worth much more than a handful of excellent core performances. By and large, he does not, and so it grows difficult to hold the film’s divergences against it. We begin with Tim (Gleeson), a young man burdened by the curse of stereotypical British awkwardness who learns from his father (Curtis regular and all around superhero Bill Nighy) that the males in their family have the ability to zip back and forth in time. At first, Tim uses his gift to undo some embarrassing stumbles from a party held the night before dear old dad spills the beans, but eventually he meets Mary (McAdams), and a touching courtship blossoms from there.
In truth, all of that tenderness comes at the cost of great dishonesty; Tim doesn’t do much more at the start of his flirtations with Mary than buy himself do-overs at every turn to cover up his many follies. Just like with Curtis, though, we can’t really blame Tim for his rampant chicanery – given the same power, most of us would probably do the same as he, opting to look slicker, sound cooler, and seem more put together in every sphere of our lives. (God knows that someone as clumsy and inelegant as he needs a rewind button.) Especially when you’re restricted to only revisiting the events of your own life, what else can you do but smooth out the bumps that come with being human?
There’s probably something to be made of the fact that About Time bases the interactions between its main characters on deception, however well-intended – Tim, arguably, never gives Mary the information necessary to make an informed choice about being with him in the first place. Curtis, of course, likes his characters a great deal and sees enough in Tim that he ultimately vindicates her decisions about their partnership; Tim’s a really great guy, even if he is kind of a spazzy dork. Watching this hapless schlemiel put his foot in his mouth or blithely blunder into uncomfortable social situations proves quite funny, and seeing him mature into the role of daddy warms hearts; that sense of falsity never manages to undercut either comedy or soul here.
Curtis has the good sense to reconcile the inherent duplicity in Tim’s actions in the climax, even if his transgressions are never addressed head-on. Frankly, he doesn’t have to; for Tim, taking two, three, or five attempts at getting it right (whatever “it” may be – making love to Mary for the first time, meeting her parents, sheltering his beloved younger sister) is about giving as much as it is about getting. Ultimately, that’s the point of the film – not to endlessly debate the ethical implications of using time travel to benefit yourself and your loved ones, but to examine the small wonders that we miss in our daily routines and the simple joys of middle class normalcy. In other words, you won’t leave the theater trying to decide whether About Time counts as romantic comedy or science fiction.
Being as that’s the case, then Gleeson may be the absolute best leading man for Curtis’ purposes; he’s exceptionally average, which sounds infinitely less complimentary than it’s meant to. Openly ginger men like Gleeson don’t fit the typical smoldering rom com mold – he’s gawky, not suave, but he’s also blessed with a great talent for expression and timing, much like his father. McAdams gives the film its more traditionally attractive principal, though she’s so skilled at nearly everything she does that her conventionality barely matters. That they work so wonderfully together on screen speaks to their chemistry and to their ability to convey what it is that draws people together; it’s not always raw animal magnetism, but sometimes something much deeper and far more ephemeral.
We’re all in on the game, mind, and that may somewhat cloud audience reactions. But About Time‘s plot devices enrich the film rather than bring it low. Tim’s temporal antics showcase just how complicated committed relationships – familial or passionate – can be, suggesting that all of the meddling in the world can’t create one that’s perfect. As much as Curtis plays fast and loose with his time traveling parameters (often glaringly so), there’s no denying that the man knows how to tap into our sentimentality without mugging us; if you choke back a sniffle, it’s because he earned it. If you feel your eyes watering, it’s because they’re supposed to. About Time
might be engineered to elicit these sorts of responses, but given its efficacy, that just means it’s engineered well.