The good news at this year’s New York Film Festival was the growing presence of comedies, thanks to the Festival’s new programming director, Kent Jones. Unfortunately, one such selection was About Time, from Richard Curtis, a master of charming romantic comedies like Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. About Time wastes too much time trying to fit into Curtis’s previous oeuvre.
About Time isn’t, or shouldn’t have tried to be, a romantic comedy. The first third of the film sets up the attraction between Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mary (Rachel McAdams) as the heart of this story. But their romance ultimately serves merely as a backdrop for a larger story line: Tim’s ability to travel back in time.
On his 21st birthday, Tim’s father (expertly played by Bill Nighy) sits him down to reveal Tim’s hereditary gift of time travel. Of course, there are parameters. First, only the men of the family possess this skill. Second, they can travel backwards only within their own lifetime.
With that, Tim’s father quickly shoos away the possibility of a butterfly effect or other complications that could alter the future. No, this family’s time travel is conveniently low-stakes and personal.
Tim’s trips back in time are all driven by the search for love. When he meets Mary, he uses time travel as a courtship tool. If he commits a romantic blunder, he can erase it and do it all over again the right way. The simplicity of Tim’s quest becomes frustrating to watch: All of his problems are solved swiftly, comically and entirely without consequence.
What’s more, the film never questions the morality of Tim’s romantic time travel. In effect he is lying to, or at least deceiving Mary, who is kept in the dark about Tim’s unusual gift. She never knows that their perfect first encounter wasn’t their first encounter at all, or that the perfect chemistry between them was actually rehearsed and relived many times over.
The charm of most romantic comedies lies in the dance between a man and a woman who possess at least some power to influence each other. But Mary enjoys no right to consent to Tim’s ability to re-visit and reshape both of their lives.
Father and son
Indeed, the same thing holds true for all the female characters in About Time. There’s a potentially rich angle about male fantasies here, but Curtis overlooks it in his obsessive quest for yet another romantic comedy. Instead of tying together loose ends, About Time splits into too many annoying strands, becoming a film about Tim’s father, his sister, his children— about so many things that it winds up being about nothing.
The story of Tim and his father, for example, could have been the film’s most interesting element. The final scene between them is the most poignant of the film: Tim travels back in time to share a moment with his father, knowing that it’s the last time he’ll see his father alive. The sweet complexity of this particular scene reveals what Curtis is capable of achieving. But Curtis treats this relationship as an ancillary story line.
In a Q & A discussion prior to the premiere, Curtis acknowledged that he never studied screenwriting and never paid attention to the rules of story arcs or progression. This refusal to follow convention brought fresh life to his earlier works, but the flaws were all too evident in About Time: The timing itself was off, the stakes were low and the story lines were jumbled.
You might say the rules of conventional movie making have finally caught up with Curtis. You might also say, to judge from About Time, that it’s about time.