NYFF Review: About Time Squanders Massive Potential With A Sloppy Time-Travel Romance
Richard Curtis, the writer who mastered the high-concept wish-fulfillment fantasy of Notting Hill and the many-threaded romances of Love Actually, is the perfect person to bring us a rom-com like About Time. Unfortunately, even though Curtis wrote and directed it, About Time is not a perfect rom-com for him, with sloppier plotting and fuzzier morals than the airy story can handle, and a wide streak of sentimentality that's frustratingly unearned.
The man who has written so many tidy screenplays should be a natural at untangling time travel logic, and for a while About Time starts off promisingly, as daffy Dad (Bill Nighy) tells his 21-year-old son Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) that the men in their family are gifted with the ability to time travel. Butterfly effect rules are in play, so Tim can't change too much, but there's no trouble in jumping directly from the past he's just tinkered with back to the new present (so no Back to the Future 2-style problems). Tim starts by leaping back to New Year's Eve and kissing the girl he awkwardly ignored the first time, then gets bolder in attempting to get his sister's friend (Margot Robbie) to like him, with no effect. Dad tells Tim to only use the time travel on what's important, but naturally for 21-year-old Tim, the only thing that's important is girls.
A few years later the only important girl winds up being Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American whom Tim meets very-cute only to lose her after impulsively traveling back in time to help out a friend (Tom Hollander, criminally underused). For a while it seems as though the film will be all about Tim's time-jumping efforts to meet Mary again, but they solve that problem fairly quickly, mostly because Tim meets her so many times that he eventually knows all the right things to say to win her over. That's a big problem but not even the biggest that About Time glides right past, constantly changing or editing its time travel rules to suit the slippery story. There's one key moment where Dad explains a rule he completely left out earlier, just for the sake of a small narrative surprise. There's another where Dad changes the timeline repeatedly, but for some reason Tim seems to know it (the entire movie is from his point of view, voiceover included). It seems nitpick to get caught up in time travel rules in the midst of a heartfelt romance, but there's no reason that the logic is so sloppy here, except that Curtis didn't want to get into explaining the rules and didn't have to.
Gleeson, so earnest and charming in Anna Karenina, is enormously appealing in a tricky role, and his scenes with the consistently marvelous Bill Nighy are wonderful, alive with familiarity and wit and everything we normally expect from Curtis's films. Everyone who surrounds the father and son, though, is slapped with a random assemblage of quirks, from Tim's erratic sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) to dry & quiet Mum (Lindsay Duncan) to even Mary, whose personality essentially vanishes after her early flirtations with Tim. When About Time shifts gears and eventually becomes more a story about this time-traveling father and son pair, it comes as a relief thanks to Nighy's familiar presence, but it's depressing to see McAdams once again shoved into a romance with apparently very little interest in her.
It's no fun to be the holdout at a fizzy and emotional Richard Curtis film, and your mileage may widely vary-- at the end of the film blubbering friends were looking at me like a monster for being so cold-hearted. But a time-travel romantic comedy in Curtis's hands could have been exceptional, and when he fails to commit to his details of his premise and gives only the bluntest shadings to his supporting players, he whiffs a story with all the potential in the world. About Time is funny and charming as all get out, but its messy core keeps the many pieces of quirk, sentiment and romance from lining up into anything worthy of all the talent here.
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