"Have we had this conversation before?"
Richard Curtis made a name for himself writing ensemble comedies that simultaneously embraced the conventions of romantic comedies while playing fast and loose with them. He got his start writing for Rowan Atkinson's series Black Adder, but it was his scripts for Four Weddings and A Funeral and Notting Hill that made his name synonymous with this new brand of British romantic comedy. His previous directorial efforts, the criminally under-seen The Boat That Rocked (released in America as Pirate Radio) and the new Christmas classic Love Actually, have given way to his third, About Time, and it's pretty safe to say that if you're not a fan of what Richard Curtis does, this time travel yarn will probably do nothing to win you over. If you are a fan, however, there's a lot here to love.
Stumbling, bumbling 21-year old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned by his dad (Bill Nighy) for a chat early one New Year's Day. His dad wants to tell him a big family secret, which is that the men in their family can travel back in time to any point in their lives that they choose. He encourages his son to use this power to make his life extraordinary, but instead Tim tries to use his ability to woo what he believes to be the girl of his dreams, Charlotte (Margot Robbie). He very quickly learns that no amount of time travel can make someone fall in love with him.
Tim moves to London and takes a job with a law firm, and soon after meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American living in London with whom he has an instant connection. When he uses time travel to help his playwright landlord (Tom Hollander) fix a disastrous opening to his new play, however, Tim erases his meeting with Mary. He must then try and find her again, and woo her back, and once he does, his life begins going the way he had always hoped it would.
The film has all the hallmarks of a typical Richard Curtis script from the colorful supporting characters, to the idealized American female love interest, and of course the hopelessly awkward male lead, normally played by Hugh Grant, though he's more or less aged out of that role by now. It's by far his most mature work, however, in that the specter of death hangs over the entire film, but the film embraces life nonetheless. It also is the first of his films in which he shows the dark side of the typical carefree supporting character, here represented by Tim's sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). She has a very interesting trajectory, and one that leads me to believe that Curtis himself has grown tired of his own formula and begun to subvert himself.
As for the time travel mechanism, it's used in an interesting way, and always at the service of the plot and characters. In other words, this isn't a science fiction film masquerading as a rom-com. The conceit is used, ultimately, to teach the main character a lesson, similar to George Bailey's trip to an alternate time in It's A Wonderful Life, a clear influence on this film. It's also handy to keep this in mind while watching the film, as anyone who comes for an interesting discussion on the ramifications of time travel, or to poke holes in the pseudo-science within the film, is there for the wrong reasons.
The biggest issue with the film is just the overall lack of conflict. While this particular issue is ultimately addressed in the film, it still lingers a bit. Anytime someone seeks to remove every bad moment from their life, every stumble and miscue, it ultimately takes all of the drama out of their life, and the middle portion of the film is a bit weighed down by this quest for perfection. As I said, this issue is resolved, and it is an obvious flaw that the main character must learn from, but it makes the film's second act a bit plodding and a borderline chore to get through. Thankfully it rebounds with a terrific third act, and an incredibly poignant ending.
The cast is fantastic, as to be expected from a Richard Curtis film. Gleeson is great as Tim, wonderfully capturing all of the insecurities of the character, while simultaneously inhabiting a body that lends itself well to such traits (unlike Hugh Grant who always looked like the male equivalent of the beautiful girl with a bad haircut and glasses). McAdams has a corner on the time travel love interest at this point in time, and plays honesty better than most actresses working today. Nighy is always a delight, especially in Curtis' films, and ends up being the film's true emotional core. The periphery characters are great as well, such as the aforementioned Hollander & Wilson, as well as Richard Cordery as Tim's aloof uncle, and two fantastic cameos that imdb hasn't spoiled yet, so I won't either.
Curtis the writer is in top form here, but Curtis the director stumbles a bit. He's always lacked a bit in that area, particularly when held up against the great directorial work his scripts received from Mike Newell & Roger Michell. His use of handheld in the more intimate scenes is questionable and jarring at times, and the repetition in the script is oddly not found in the visual look of the film, which gives it a bit of an off-kilter feel. But his use of music, especially Ben Folds' "The Luckiest" and Nick Cave's "Into My Arms," shows that he's second to none when picking great pop songs for his films.
If you're a fan of Richard Curtis' work, do yourself a favor and see About Time. It's as assured a work as he's produced in his career, and will remind you why he's as successful a writer/director as he's ever been. If you're not a fan, there's probably far too many of his conventions here to allow you to truly enjoy it, but I would recommend keeping an open mind as he seems to be as tired of some of these as his detractors are. Either way, it's a great little film about life and the power of living in the moment, and while it succumbs to schmaltz at times, it has enough genuine moments to make you overlook those... just like any other great Richard Curtis film.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]