It was Pauline Kael who said “melodrama with a fast pace can be much more exciting - and more honest, too - than feeble pretentious attempts at drama.” So it is with About Time, the new film from Richard Curtis, the writer-director of Love Actually, that sentimental hydra-headed Christmastime romantic comedy that some say drowns in sappiness as if that’s a bad thing. His new film is a romance about falling in love with a woman, but even more so about falling in love with life itself, helped along by important relationships and Big Moments – births, deaths, weddings, funerals – that make one stop and appreciate time as it goes by. To this is added a light dusting of high concept sci-fi that’s at once easily digestible and, just below the surface, as incomprehensible as any time travel plotting can grow when one stares at it for too long. But anyway, this isn’t a movie that one experiences with the head, intending to chart it out for one’s date afterwards, arranging straws into timelines on the dinner table. This is a movie that socked me in the heart early and often, terrifically emotionally manipulative and much more involving than feebler fare.
It starts with Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, a Weasley son) turning 21 and learning a family secret, so secret neither his mother (Lindsay Duncan) nor sister (Lydia Wilson) knows. His father (Bill Nighy) calls him into his study, sits him down, and says that all the men in his family can travel through time. “It’s not a joke,” he so flatly states it must be true. With this information comes knowledge of the ability’s restrictions, learned, we’re meant to assume, through generations of trial and error. He can only travel within the space of his own lifetime. He can only travel backwards, other than returning to the present, of course. He can only return to places and times he knows. To achieve this feat, he simply has to stand in the dark, clench his fists, and think his way there.
It all sounds so simple, and in practice it is. The film uses the sci-fi hook to power its storytelling and uses the rules to keep the plot from spinning out of control. It’s silliness treated if not literally seriously, than emotionally seriously. It helps that Nighy is such a warm presence, eager in his fatherly insistence on ethical uses of time travel. Look not for riches or manipulations, he says, but for generating more chances to do what you love. What’s he done with this gift? He says he has found more reading time, mostly.
Tim wants a girlfriend and at first sets about creating his own personal Groundhog Day in order to gather information to woo his crushes. Once he realizes that no matter how often he tries to redo moments to make them just right, others will behave in unpredictable ways, he simply moves on with his life. He moves to London, gets a low level job at a law firm, meets new friends, and falls in love at first sight with a young woman (Rachel McAdams, exuding sunny appeal) he meets by pure coincidence. In this story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl by going back inadvertently changing their meeting. He erases it, in fact.
He must win her back by going back, using his powers not to control, but only to be a better flirt and a better lover. He’ll still redo social stumbles, but he’s just as likely to jump back and relive a great moment. There’s a funny bit where he selfishly relives a Big Deal three times, and then is too exhausted to go again when McAdams asks him to. He time-traveled and didn’t even have to.
As the film progresses through moments romantic, comedic, and dramatic, it builds up a picture of a young man learning to come to terms with the finite nature of life. Sometimes the story will even take a break from its mild sci-fi possibilities and go for a stretch without bringing up its central premise at all, playing out as tasteful, sentimental melodrama. It works on that level quite nicely. Principally a romance between two characters rather charmingly portrayed (Domhnall and McAdams have an on-screen connection that instantly provoked my rooting interest) this is a movie full of tender, warm, heartfelt moments of swooping, swooning true love and all that mushy stuff. It’s a movie about learning to experience life as it happens instead of always striving for some ideal life you feel you aren’t living, but could be or should be.
About Time uses its modest time travel trappings not as plot mechanics, but as metaphor for learning how to manage and truly appreciate the time you have with those who love you. It’s a warm and fuzzy movie that tells comfortable, but no less moving, truths. It has the romance of a cozy rom com, the philosophy of a greeting card, and the sentimentality of a life insurance commercial. But the combination comes together so wonderfully that it won me over all the same. It’s all a slick and lovely artifice through which Curtis can movingly and sweetly find some great emotional resonances. A lush piano score that dances around the tune of one of my favorite Ben Folds songs ties together a story that’s small in scope, telling only of one young man’s maturation through complications both romantic and temporal. And yet its syrupy life-affirming implications are so grandly expressive. It’s a movie of broad feeling and overflowing heart.
Note: This is undoubtedly the mildest R-rated film I’ve seen in quite some time. It has a handful of stronger profanities deployed tastefully and a few non-explicit references to sex. Why that’s not considered a PG-13 here when I’ve seen worse in PG-13s past (in trailers, even), is beyond me.