Combining reliable rom-com sentimentality with a fantastical time travel element that has limited scope or consequence, About Time positions itself as a crowd-pleaser sure to elicit requisite laughter and tears. The film is evidence that writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually, screenwriter of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral) is only interested in pandering to his core audience rather than challenging them in any meaningful way. There are meet-cutes, fringe characters defined by a single personality quirk, easily managed melodrama and all the trappings of the genre, which, ironically, are made even more routine by sojourns back in time.
21-year-old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, doing his best approximation of a young Hugh Grant) has a fairly idyllic life on a sprawling Cornwall estate, living with a loving family before moving to London. His only cheeky laments are a slightly awkward sociability and unlucky love life; though we only see a few uncomfortable situations that don’t exactly paint him as a hopeless outcast. He even has the benefit of an impossibly perfect relationship with his eternally nurturing father (Bill Nighy) in which their rapid, witty, understanding banter leaves no room for the shortest of awkward moments. Their comedic timing isn’t even thrown off when Dad (the official name of the character) reveals to Tim that all the men in their family have the ability to time travel.
Of course, this being a story of love and relationships it’s best not to get hung up on any paradoxes or impossibilities of traveling through time – the script certainly doesn’t. The rules start off simple: Tim can only travel backwards and only into moments within his own lifetime. To do so, he stands in a dark place, clenches his fists, and thinks of the moment. Apparently he doesn’t create a duplicate of himself and no one in the past notices his “other self” disappear into thin air. Tim’s father urges him to only use this gift for things that truly matter – forget about riches and power. For Tim this means fixing embarrassing moments with women that include a botched New Year’s Eve kiss and a sloppy application of sunscreen.
About Time definitely takes its time to get to the core story, involving Tim romancing American girl Mary (Rachel McAdams). Huge chunks of their complicated courtship, along with several other plot strings, could easily be shortened and immediately fixed by Tim (or Dad) using their abilities. The protracted wooing period leaves little time to showcase other endearing necessities like a too-cute proposal, rain-soaked wedding, having and raising kids, and helping a family member in sudden, manufactured peril. The pacing of events, some seen multiple times with varying outcomes, gives an episodic feel to the film that is disjointed and clumsy in delivering the standard moral of finding joy in each moment you’ve got.
Vignettes essentially play out as if they’re part of a Most Adorable Person contest between Tim, Mary, and Dad. All unflawed, they pretty much tie for the crown, though Mary gets shoved to the side a bit in a final act that focuses on the other two players. Gleeson, McAdams and Nighy, all render their inherent likability, but unfortunately their characters offer little opportunity to emote anything other than complete happiness or mild sadness. Their comedic or pointed conversations – with each other or the many peripheral personalities that wander in and out of the story as needed – do little more than capture a moment before it evaporates into insignificance.
Curtis writes himself into a corner with a screenplay that makes up rules as it goes along in order to fit in forced tear-jerker moments or artificial roadblocks for Tim to leap over. That About Time has to cheat to convey the simplest of messages makes us wonder why we even need to fuss with this time travel business, or the film, in the first place.