It’s hard to underestimate writer/director Richard Curtis’ importance when it comes to modern romantic comedies. During the last thirty years, Curtis penned the screenplays for rom-com classics such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, as well as writing and directing the one movie you’re obligated to watch on Valentine’s Day (No, not the crappy Taylor Lautner one), Love Actually.
With his new film About Time, Curtis tries to meld his rom-com style full of ironic and self-deprecating British humor with a hard science-fiction premise and the result is honestly kind of a mess.
Tim (Brendan Gleeson’s son Domhnall) is unlucky in love, just like any rom-com protagonist at the beginning of the story. But when he reaches the age of 21, his father (The always dependable Bill Nighy) shares a family secret with him: The men in his family can travel backwards in time. By walking into a dark place and thinking of a time in his past, Tim can travel to that time instantaneously.
Instead of using his powers to perhaps warn the US government about the oncoming attacks on 9/11 or warn the UK government before the famous subway explosion takes place, Tim travels in time for a much more important reason: To bag hot girls.
Tim’s approach with picking up chicks resembles Bill Murray’s style for wooing Andie McDowell in Groundhog Day. Instead of trying a different line when he has to repeat the same day over again, Tim simply travels back by a couple of minutes and tries different lines until he’s successful.
We already know from 2009’s The Time Traveler’s Wife that any romantic film involving time travel cannot exist without Rachel McAdams’ presence. One day, Tim meets Mary (McAdams) and manages to pick her up using his time travel skills. From this point on, we expect the typical rom-com structure to follow but Richard Curtis steers away from it in order to present a ham-fisted philosophy lesson on life.
We expect the typical notes to be hit, the boy and girl meet-cute, they fall in love but can’t stay together because of silly complications that could be resolved if they only told the simple truth to each other and the film ends with the couple somehow getting together against all odds.
However, after About Time’s first act, the relationship between Mary and Tim is settled for good and Curtis jumps from one episodic lesson to another, all of them about appreciating every moment in life presented with the subtlety of a self-help book.
Of course the film presents charismatic, unique and heartfelt characters regardless of the story’s shortcomings. Usually the supporting characters in Curtis’ films are the most interesting. Bill Nighy’s father, who uses his time travel powers to read every book in history is more fascinating to watch than either Tim or Mary.
The film’s biggest downfall is that it doesn’t bother to set up even the most basic rules as far as its time travel premise is concerned. Curtis is a writer who hasn’t delved much into science-fiction. Before About Time, his impressive filmography only shows that he wrote a single Doctor Who episode as far as his past in science-fiction is concerned.
As absurd as any science-fiction premise might be, the story has to create its rules and stick to them. Curtis’ screenplay cannot explain the ins and outs of its time travel premise in a way that makes sense within the genre.
For example, in order to travel back in time, Tim has to think of a time in his life and go there. But when he does, what happens to the Tim who originally inhabited that time? When Tim goes back for two minutes, the version of Tim who existed two minutes ago is no longer there. What happened to him? Did he just vanish? How do the people around him not freak out at a man who constantly vanishes into thin air, only to emerge from a closet in that very moment?
The many paradoxes of the premise multiply as we find out Tim can pull people back in time simply by holding their hand. I won’t even get into the bizarre idea that every time Tim travels to a time before the birth of his children, he’s met in the future with a different child since the change in the space-time continuum also changed which sperm impregnated Mary’s ovaries.
As much as it relished in the absurdity of its premise, Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five and its excellent film adaptation set up very basic rules about Billy Pilgrim being unstuck in time and did not break them in order to create a cohesive story. Well, as cohesive as it could have been.
About Time is "cute" and delivers a positive message so it’s hard to really knock it down. There are always much worse options for rom-com fans, but science-fiction nerds should not expect a masterpiece.