Film Review: About Time

Time travel is turned into “take two” where, if at first you don’t succeed, try something else. As practiced here by writer-director Richard Curtis and his fumbling lothario, Domhnall Gleeson, the result resembles a sputtering sentimental journey.

The plot premise that keeps About Time churning away in mechanical spurts and spasms for 123 minutes is something David Ives breezily dispatched under ten in Sure Thing, one of six cute one-act plays that comprised his decade-old collection, All in the Timing, and demonstrated how the course of true love never runs smoothly.

In that amiable playlet, a man and a woman meet in a café and start charging into a conversational minefield until they hit a gaffe or faux pas. Ding! sounds a bell off-stage. They back up and begin again, continuing until they strike into another social obstruction. Another ding! They go back two lines and forward again, tentatively.

About Time seems to be locked in the same revolving pattern, repeating itself over and over but without the eccentric wit of Bill Murray’s recurring Groundhog Day—a movie which Stephen Sondheim once considered musicalizing (his new plan of action is now, instead, collaborating, with Ives on a similar time-sensitive storyline).

The billion-dollar rom-com man, Richard Curtis, who concocted Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and his directing-debut flick, Love, Actually, uses this once-more-with-feeling technique here to construct a satisfactory life—and, particularly, love life—for a gangling, geeky Cornish barrister-to-be, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson). On his 21st birthday, Tim’s loosy-goosy, laid-back dad (Bill Nighy, of course) throws the family skeleton on the floor and tells him that the men of the family have been blessed/cursed with the gift of time-traveling—not on a grand H.G. Wells scale and not forward, only backward and only within your own life (i.e., you can’t tell Hitler where to get off). All you need is a fixed focus, tightened fists and something akin to Superman’s phone booth (closet, cupboard, toilet stall)—and you’re off and twirling.

It seems like wasting the genie’s wishes that Tim spends his time-traveling instant replays backtracking and tweaking his love life—nailing that New Year’s Eve kiss, clearing his agenda to meet his dream girl, eliminating romantic rivals, choosing the right guy to deliver the best man’s speech, tidying his self-destructive kid’s sister’s life, saving his playwright-friend from “the Titanic of opening nights.” There seems to be no end to mundane messes this genetic gift can’t fix—and that’s not a good thing.

Despite the formulistic whirlpool the picture seems to be swirling in, the characters give off sparks of charm and wit. The 30-year-old Gleeson passes convincingly for a youth who gathers gravitas with the years. And Rachel McAdams, the one American among the Brits, is ideal as Tim’s love interest (and that’s not counting her prior training as The Time Traveler’s Wife). Nighy not only makes you think he has a role to play here, he makes you feel that it doesn’t matter if he didn’t. He’s just plain wonderful to have around. So is the sublime Lindsay Duncan, who has even less to work with as his wife. Tom Hollander is a hoot as the profane playwright.

A very funny throwaway bit features two old Withnail & I co-stars, reunited for what turned out to be one last time—Richard E. Grant and the late Richard Griffiths.