Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
Genre: Drama/ Comedy/ Romance
When turning 21, the unlucky in love Tim (Gleeson) learns that there is something truly unique about the men in his family: they can travel back in time, though only travel back to moments in their individual lives. Tim uses this unique gift to learn how to finally get himself a girlfriend, but that still proves difficult. After meeting Mary (McAdams) there is an obvious spark, but doing a good deed for someone else with his unique ability means that encounter never happened. Now Tim must use his unique abilities to try again and again to win her heart again, and when he does this, as Tim is in a Richard Curtis film there is a plethora of schmaltzy and over sentimentalised moral messages to be learned.
I do not claim to be an expert on time travel theory and of course a concept like that allows a certain room for manoeuvre if the unique rules surrounding it are explained at the start of the film. That is fine, and of course this being Richard Curtis it is more used as a method to explore his usual sentimental crowd pleasing themes. There are plenty of slight flaws in the logic, but it is best not to focus on them as this is not science fiction, this is sentimental schmaltz. This does not necessarily completely excuse it, and it does often feel like Curtis is making it up as he goes along (especially at one point when a new rule is introduced), but unless by some miracle you have never seen anything containing a Richard Curtis script, we all know what we are letting ourselves in for before we watch About Time.
Despite the front cover and all the marketing seemingly showing a dominant focus on Tim’s relationship with Mary, for me the greater emotional punch came from when the focus was more on Tim’s relationship with his family. Rachel McAdams’ character certainly suffers from this; she gives a pretty bland performance but her character is underwritten and has no particularly interesting characteristics whatsoever making it really difficult to care about their relationship at times. Though Tim’s initial attempts to woo Mary produce the film’s most comedic moments (except Tom Hollander’s gloriously miserable Uncle), perhaps the film would have benefitted more if Curtis had not tried to include every aspect of life.
There is no denying that some of the ideas explored about Tim’s relationship with his family (dad and sister especially) are at times moving. Whether About Time is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve or is cynically written I would not like to say, though it often does feels like the latter (Ok, yes I have said it). Though the whole time travel concept allows Curtis to explore the universal themes of cherishing every moment in our short time in the world and appreciating the smaller supposedly less significant moments, the fact Tim can change that sometimes feels like cheating. This does detract from some of the emotional power, but they are universal themes and so there is no denying that at times they will tug at the heartstring of even the most cynical viewer.
One thing Richard Curtis needs to change in my view is his insistence on using clichéd middle class English characters. It is partly his fault that everyone has this stereotypical view that we English are all well do to stiff upper lip types, but once again in About Time it seems these are the only characters that exist in Richard Curtis’ world. Another typical cliché of the genre that Curtis unashamedly seems to embrace is that supporting characters are all caricatures of strange, miserable or stupid people. I appreciate they are there to provide comic relief, but show a little imagination Richard!
Thankfully, despite all the schmaltz, clichés and Richard Curtisisms, in his first leading role is Domhnall Gleeson provides us with an extremely likeable and charismatic protagonist. Demonstrating a knack for comic timing and emotional substance when needed, his performance for me truly lifts the film and the over sentimentalised voiceovers. Though playing himself as always with great aplomb, Bill Nighy gives a perfectly suited performance, and the chemistry he shares with Gleeson provides the real emotional substance the film needs. In the final third the points the film are trying to make are well and truly over emphasised, and at 123 minutes is a good 30 minutes too long, often with scenes that add nothing. However with enough laughs and tears, About Time will not change anyone’s life, but it still a watchable film.
While About Time will not win Richard Curtis any new fans, it has just enough laughs and the occasionally tear, as well as two good performances from Gleeson and Nighy to emerge as an inoffensive and watchable, if ultimately forgettable, romantic comedy.