ABOUT TIME Review: Too Much Is Never Enough
Whether classics like 1960’s The Time Machine, recent hits like 2012’s Looper, or even the mushy treacle in between, like 1980’s Somewhere in Time, I have always loved movies about time travel. My first recollection of being enamored by this notion was when I was in the 8th grade (Holy Rosary, Claymont, DE, Class of ’82). We were treated to a viewing of the classic Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” where Kirk and Spock travel back to 1930s New York to fetch a lost Bones, an act which will ultimately prevent the Nazis from winning World War II.
In the schoolyard debate that followed, I said that if you can go back in time and take out Hitler, you go back in time and take out Hitler. A female classmate took the position that, while the take-out-Hitler intention was good, the consequences could be terrible because by taking out Hitler, you alter the course of all history. I told her that the reward greatly outweighed the risk. She slapped me in the face.
(Okay. As a 13-year-old boy in 1982, I may have been chauvinistically dismissive of her opinion, too. That part of the memory is kind of fuzzy.)
This ripple effect of future consequences was made clearer to me by 1985’s Back to the Future, where there really was no reward per se, and the risk was the loss of the McFly kids. So of course I was eager to see About Time, a time travel film (wrapped in a sweet RomCom candy shell) that offers the potential for both the reward of righting past wrongs and the risk of negatively impacting a family’s future.
On New Year’s Day when he is 21 years old, Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) learns an ancient secret from his father (Bill Nighy): the men of their family can travel through time. Tim is dismissive of the notion, but when he follows Dad’s instructions – find a small dark place, clench your fists, close your eyes, think of the time and place you want to be, BOOM you’re there – it works. He tests it to comedic affect.
Fast-forward to fall, when Tim moves to London to pursue a career in law. He lives with a family friend, playwright Harry (Tom Hollander), and when out one night, Tim meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) at a restaurant. He is smitten. When he arrives home that night, he learns that Harry’s play was a disaster, so he secretly decides to help his friend by time-traveling several hours in the past, righting the play’s wrong, then hustling to where he met Mary so he can meet her again for the first time. But by the time he gets there, Mary has already left. When he finds her again, she doesn’t know who he is because he rewound time to prior to their original meeting. It’s an important early lesson in the consequences that come with Tim’s gift, and it isn’t the last time that type of lesson is taught to him.
I’m not only a sucker for time travel, I’m also a sucker for the RomComs of writer/director Richard Curtis, who has brought us the likes of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Love Actually. Like those, this film has elements that are signature characteristics of a Curtis film: unabashed romance, humor, a British locale, a large cast, an awkward but charming male lead, an American character, and a very high concept. It fires on all cylinders here, carried by Gleeson, who is British-ly charming and awkward, but in his own way (read: not a Hugh Grant clone); McAdams, who is beyond adorable (and American); and Nighy, who plays that Nighy character – relentlessly rakish yet appropriately sentimental. The locale and cast fall into line as well. It’s the high concept, however, where About Time really outdoes those that have come before it, but this is one of the film’s blessings and curses.
As a blessing, the time travel element allows for events and circumstances to occur that normally couldn’t in any other traditional RomCom. If you suspend your disbelief about time travel in general, then nothing else strains credulity in terms of the story, and the laughter (and tears) alternate throughout (heavier on the former). The timeline does get a little murky at one point later in the film (not Back to the Future II murky, thank goodness, but still). Conversely, though, Curtis is shrewd enough to build in time travel “rules” that would make specific or excessive trips incredibly punitive to Tim, adding considerable weight to his decisions.
As a curse, though, Curtis’ decision to do something so fantastical gives the film a feeling akin to what action movies went through post-Die Hard. Where Speed is “Die Hard on a bus” and Under Siege is “Die Hard on a boat,” you can make the case that this film could be “Love Actually with time travel,” the way New Year’s Eve is “Love Actually on New Year’s Eve” and Valentine’s Day is “Love Actually on Valentine’s Day.” In terms of scope, this film is less sprawling than Love Actually, with fewer tangential character relationships, and instead applies its intricate weave to a core group of people on a linear plane with the back-and-forth travel on Tim’s timeline (as well as Dad’s).
There’s a little bit of 1993’s Groundhog Day at work here, too. While the Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell film doesn’t address time travel, it does address righting the past wrongs of a given time period, which Tim does here to varying results.
As a side note: If you think you know what’s going to happen based on the trailers, think again. The film sharply zags where the trailers sharply zig, and while I saw every scene from the trailers in the film, I certainly didn’t see them the way they were presented. For all of fans’ railing against trailers and spoilers in general, they should be happy that this one does no such thing.
In the end, About Time is funny and heartwarming, and a nice way to spend two hours. If you liked Love Actually, you’ll like Love Actually With Time Travel.