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Coming from the creator of Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, you might understandably expect About Time to be a romantic comedy. After all, it is fronted by Rachel McAdams and Anna Karenina's Domhnall Gleeson. Don't be fooled. This is not a movie about romance. It's about a far more encompassing idea of love, embracing lovers, friends, and family in a way that makes About Time a rich and wonderful narrative.
If you could relive moments of your life until you get them just as you want, what would you do? "For me, it was always going to be all about love," says young Tim (Gleeson), the eager but naïve romantic at the center of Curtis's latest dramedy. On his 21st birthday, Tim's loving father (the deeply charming Bill Nighy) tells him of the incredible inheritance to which he is now entitled. It's not money, but rather the Y-chromosome imprinted ability to travel back within his own lifetime. His father warns him this gift should be used as a tool to help him get what he really wants in life. And for the first half of the film, Tim really wants a girlfriend.
He uses his powers to get a second chance at a first kiss or make a better introduction to a girl he thinks might be the one (McAdams), and to plan a marriage proposal. Gleeson and McAdams are adorable as a couple in love, but just as this plotline begins to run thin, Curtis shifts focus from this story of romance to a more mature themes that involve Tim's relationship with his screw-up little sister (Lydia Wilson) and his father, who sadly not even time travel can make immortal.
Science-fiction fans may gnash their teeth over the inconsistencies in Curtis's brand of time travel, as clarity and consistency are sacrificed in favor of dramatic pacing. Here, time travel is used as a tool to discuss the choices we make to do what's best for us or what's best for our loved ones, which sometimes means giving up on living in the past. Curtis's exploration of this theme is emotionally profound, underlined by a pitch perfect soundtrack that includes songs from Nick Cave, Ben Folds, and Jimmy Fontana-- guaranteed to draw tears as he presents a pocket of possibility for time travel that is beautiful and bittersweet. Yet Curtis's ear for snappy dialogue gives About Time an effervescence, while the cast imbues it with a rich warmth.
Gleeson is darling as our lanky hero, handling the awkward romantic introductions as well as the father-son plotline with a vibrant humor. Outstanding support is given by Lindsay Duncan as Tim's brusque mother, Lydia Wilson as his wild child sister, Richard Cordery as the lovably befuddled Uncle Desmond, and Tom Hollander as Tim's ever-furious playwright friend Harry. But it's Nighy who grounds the movie with his role as the time-traveling bookworm who is an easy-going patriarch to this clan. His performance seems so effortless that his and Tim's relationship feels authentically lived-in, making the film's final act all the more powerful.
Sadly McAdams is a weak spot. She's cute and affable as Mary, but she seems miscast, especially with the costuming department desperately playing down McAdams's natural beauty, saddling her with a bad haircut and clunky matronly clothes. And her charm, while welcome, is wasted on a character that is more a plot necessity than a person. There's no conflict or complexity to her character. She's just a tool to teach us about Tim. Mary doesn't care about the details of her wedding to Tim. He can pick the when, where and who of it all. She'll just show up in an unconventional dress and look glorious and be a perfect symbol of marital happiness achieved.
Aside from this underwritten character and bizarre casting choice, Curtis has made a fantastic and inventive modern-day fable. Tim's extraordinary ability sets him apart from the rest of the world, giving him a chance to relive any day of his life again. Yet in doing that he discovers he really isn't that different from the rest of us. His choices are just like ours, deciding to get caught up in what has passed, or to live for today and accept that life goes on. Curtis creates this narrative with a sensational sense of joy and a ribbon of tragedy that makes the former all the sweeter. Beyond being a movie that will make you laugh and cry, About Time is that rare cinematic treat that can make you better appreciate life itself.