Already a hit in its native England, About Time presents all sorts of small and medium-size problems threatening to upset writer-director Richard Curtis’ film from within, beginning with the premise (Only men in this family can time-travel? Are the women at least allowed to vote?) to the clanking interpolation of near-death experiences designed to make us care. The charm of the script comes in three fabrics: genuine, artificial and what you might call a cotton/poly blend.
But the cast of About Time is effortlessly skillful, and the movie ends up working, as it happens, despite its fantasy element, not because of it. On his 21st birthday, ordinary young Tim, played by Domhnall Gleeson, learns from his blithely eccentric father (Bill Nighy, a delight—his comic timing is so distinctly his own, he’s like his own time zone) the family secret: The men in this particular clan are able to time-travel into their pasts, reliving and then restaging key embarrassing moments, thereby avoiding pesky relational humiliations. In other words they live (and this is the weirdly unexamined part of the screenplay) lives of perpetual dodginess and stealth manipulation of loved ones.
It’s Groundhog Day crossed with Love Actually, the latter being a big Curtis hit. The twin poles of Dream Womanhood in About Time are represented by Tim’s longtime crush, a family friend played by Margot Robbie, and by Tim’s more approachable but equally gorgeous destiny, an American in London played by Rachel McAdams.
As an actress and as a movie star—she’s certifiably both—McAdams has traveled this way before: In The Time Traveler’s Wife, she was (spoiler alert) the wife of a time-traveler, while in Midnight in Paris she was (spoiler alert) a time-traveler’s fiancée. Strong material, weak material and in-between, McAdams has an uncanny ability to establish a rapport with a scene partner, so that the on-screen relationship acquires something like real feeling, no matter her co-star.
About Time gives her a worthy one in Gleeson. The mode of time-traveling transport here is straight out of C.S. Lewis; if, for example, he bungles a New Year’s Eve kiss, Tim simply finds the nearest wardrobe or closet, clenches his fists, thinks of the moment he’d like to revise, and poof, there he is, Take 2. The surprises in About Time, such as they are, relate to the expanse of the storyline; Tim and Mary, made for each other, glide along life’s highway, become parents, suffer setbacks they can cope with, and the existential advantages and/or drawbacks of Tim’s secret weapon come and go with the breeze.
I mentioned Love Actually earlier in the review. That’s a film I actively dislike (I love Curtis’ script for Four Weddings and a Funeral, though). Some will feel similarly disinclined toward the conceits and strategies of About Time. For me, the actors save it, and make the most of it, among them Tom Hollander as the world’s most hostile successful playwright; Richard Cordery, as the world’s dottiest addle-brained uncle; and Lydia Wilson as Tim’s sister, a magnet for bad relationships and for Curtis’ most ruthless sentimental pathos.
Enjoy the love in your life, and don’t squander it: That’s all Curtis is selling here, really. With Gleeson and McAdams at the forefront, About Time has a beguiling pair of rom-com miracle workers helping him close the sale.
About Time (R) ★★★☆☆