I’ll describe how wonderful About Time is by telling you what it’s not. It’s a time-travel movie, but with an absolute minimum of science-fiction, paradoxes, and butterfly effects. It’s a romantic comedy, but only for the first hour or so, and not the annoying kind full of misunderstandings and hurt feelings and love triangles that only have one possible solution. It’s a celebration of life and family, but it’s not sappy or manipulative. I cried a lot at the end, and I look forward to crying some more the next time I see it, which I hope is soon.
This sweet dose of sunshine comes from the upbeat mind of Richard Curtis, writer of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Bridget Jones adaptations, and Love, Actually (which he also directed, as he did About Time). Wry British people having funny, heartfelt romantic misadventures are his stock-in-trade. He has added a new wrinkle here, but it doesn’t fundamentally change anything. As someone says early on, “All the time travel in the world can’t make someone love you.” This is about people, not timelines.
Our hero and narrator is Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a tall, ginger-haired fellow who is 21 when his father (Bill Nighy) reveals a startling fact: all the men in their family can travel through time. Only backward, though, not forward, and only to moments in their own lives. (No killing Hitler. Dad mentions that specifically.) The myriad questions that arise — how many generations has this been going on? What started it? How is it done? — are cheerfully swept aside because the movie has no interest in them. Tim and his dad can go back in time. They just can. Don’t worry about it.
Tim uses his newfound power to seek love, of course. When he woos a young lady with less than optimum smoothness, he can go back and do it again until he gets it right. No more missed opportunities or fumbled encounters. (Domhnall Gleeson, the affable Irish actor who plays Tim, has loads of fun in what should be a breakout role.) While living in London and having no luck meeting anyone outside of work (he’s a lawyer), he happens to make the acquaintance of Mary (Rachel McAdams), an effervescent American girl who finds his slight dorkiness charming and is able to look past his being a ginger.
I love what happens from there. Part of the reason is that it’s not what I expected. With this premise, and considering what we’ve seen in other romantic comedies, we anticipate certain plot devices. We expect Tim’s time-traveling to result in a major crisis. We brace ourselves for the moment when Mary finds out he’s been bending time and space to win her affection and gets angry about it. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that Curtis is aware of the genre tropes and chose in this case to take an alternate route around some of them.
The second half of the film moves away from the rom-com formula in favor of a more general theme about living life to its fullest. Tim has dilemmas involving his insane playwright roommate (Tom Hollander), his free-spirited, unlucky-in-love sister (Lydia Wilson), and an old flame (Margot Robbie). His efforts to solve these problems are always motivated by compassion and kindness, yet they don’t always yield the results he wanted. But the film never dwells on any one crisis for very long. There’s no single conflict that defines the story because there’s no single conflict that defines Tim’s life.
Movies that don’t have a specific obstacle for the protagonist to overcome often run the risk of being meandering and pointless, but About Time avoids that pitfall through sheer, relentless optimism. Tim’s family — which also includes a dear mother (Lindsay Duncan) and daft uncle (Richard Cordery) — are affectionate toward each other. Tim and Mary have a mature, happy relationship. Bill Nighy is an absolute treasure as Tim’s dad, and their scenes together are marvelous and tender. Spending two hours with all of these characters is a sweetly uplifting, even life-affirming experience.
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