Review: About Time
It's been a while since I've seen a film as unabashedly and forcibly sentimental as Richard Curtis's About Time. This is a film that pointedly celebrates family, love, marriage, and the glories of being alive. When it's not busy applying its syrupy life-affirming Hallmark Card sweetness with a hand trowel, it's weeping openly into its tea, wailing for the sweet little things in life that we may lose. This is what we might refer to as a five-hanky movie.
Which is a bizarre tone for a flick like About Time to strike, this weepy enjoy-the-little-things romance, as it has the initial conceit of a gimmicky science fiction film. Our lead character, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), a pasty bourgeois manse-dweller, learns on his 21st birthday that the men in his family all have the ability to time travel, and can rewrite little moments in their own past (they can't travel forward in time, nor can they visit any moment other than their own life). Tim, being a goofy romantic, uses his ability to kiss the girl he should have kissed, undo faux pas, and eventually meet – and re-meet – the girl of his dreams, American girl Mary (Rachel McAdams).
For the first third of the film, you assume that About Time is going to be the British Curtis (of Love, Actually fame) fooling around with a cute li'l plot notion that is usually reserved for high-concept American comedies like Groundhog Day or the Adam Sandler vehicle Click, also films about using time travel to appreciate the little things in life. Oddly, About Time eschews its own science fiction concept for extended portions of the plot, as our hero comes to love his quirky sister (Lydia Wilson) all the more, and deals with the extended everyday romance of living with someone, meeting their parents, getting married, having kids, attending parties, etc.
Indeed the time travel pieces of the movie almost seem like an afterthought after a while, being employed to supply some cheap gags. What? The Best Man speech at your wedding isn't going well? Why not go back in time and variously swap Best Men until you get the best speech? You want to try your first time in bed with someone a second time? That'll work too. But the time travel is never used as a plot point, and the actual story is not effected by its inclusion. American audiences raised on story-heavy movies may find this frustrating.
To digress for an observation: English films seem preoccupied with the notion of the quotidian grind of everyday life, and I have seen many English films and TV programmes that alternately slam, celebrate, satirize, or make absurd the central ethos of British living, which is how boring everything is most of the time. American films tend to deal with bold action-takers, or, at the very least, taking advantage of an opportunity: suddenly being imbued with fantasy-fulfilling superpowers, for instance, may not have been something innovated in England. Films like About Time, though, make a point of celebrating those banal English moments as the grand basis for a life driven by love. This may sound corny – and believe me, it is – but I admire Curtis for being the one reliable filmmaker from the isles who seems to be constantly providing these forwardly sentimental films with such reliable regularity.
So by the end of the film, when About Time's hand trowel of treacle is replaced with an extra-large snow shovel and Gleeson is giving voice-over speeches about how great it is to do something so simple as play table tennis with his dad (Bill Nighy), your dry cynical immunities will have been weakened and destroyed to the point of misty-eyed, lip-quivering emotional breakdowns of weepy enjoyment. Some audiences out there may have stony hearts that can resist the works of Richard Curtis, and it's easy to feign cynicism about his movies, but this critic is not one of those people. I found myself in a better mood leaving About Time than when I went in. Despite it all, it works its magic, dammit.
And, well, that's not nothing. Sometimes a big cup of teary schmaltz is just what the doctor ordered, and Richard Curtis is your pharmacist.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.