There is no denying that Richard Curtis' new big film of big emotions, “About Time”, is effective. It's a melodramatic slalom course through unrequited love, missed opportunities, true romance, birth and death creating an avalanche of feeling. It is powered by the strong “us against the world” bonds that come from family, particularly that of fathers and sons, and Bill Nighy is, unquestionably, forever one of cinema's coolest Dads with this performance.
But just because you will be reduced to a flayed, raw mess of emotion as the final “life is beautiful” scenes play out, that doesn't mean this is actually, you know, a good movie. Much like a Katy Perry song will get stuck in your head if you hear it enough times at the CVS, it is no indicator of quality. In fact, some might argue that we shouldn't encourage this sort of entertainment product. In fact, that person may be me.
“About Time” opens with a wall of voice over narration introducing us to Tim (Domhnall Gleason), a shy, British “ginger” and his quirky, wealthy family. On his 21st birthday his Dad (Nighy, truly wonderful – the type of performance where every reaction shot is perfect and rich with feeling) pulls Tim aside to explain the family secret. The men in the family have the ability to go back in time. No, they can't kill Hitler, they can go back to points in their own life that they can remember and make specific changes. Problems with the butterfly effect? It's not an issue - and it's not that type of sci-fi movie, anyway. Except when it wants to be, but more on that in a bit.
We then follow Tim on his shaggy dog adventures as a young man. His trick and its opt-in “Groundhog Day” manifestations don't help him woo the summer house guest (Margot Robbie) but it's not for lack trying. When he moves to London, though, and true love presents itself in the Deschanel-esque form of faux-dork Mary (Rachel McAdams) he's able to use his ability to position himself at the optimum moment to let sparks lead to fiery passion.
Since Tim and Mary are “meant to be,” this manipulation of the “rules” to “About Time”'s high concept works. Annoyingly, there are many other times when these parameters feel arbitrarily thought-up on the spot to service the story – enough so that my “it's just a movie” allowance quickly dried up. (As these are spoilers, I'll list them at the end. And I'll list them, because someone has to.)
Tim's travels through time soon morph from “Groundhog Day”-like attempts to “get things right” to a more “Slaughterhouse-Five”-like flattening of the timeline. Strangely, despite a few head-fakes, there isn't one specific quest on which Tim is sent. He's just living his life, but able to do so with the perspective of someone who knows all of this can be changed. It imbues him with a philosophy that allows him to live, dammit, to truly live, and this “World According To” vibe has the potential to be profound, but is ultimately squandered on hackneyed developments.
The film's desultory nature quickly takes its toll. It is fitting that a movie two hour movie about time travel feels more like five. Every emotional highlight of Tim's life is represented, and this includes worn out beats like a bored husband watching his wife try on different dresses before a night on the town. Once the time travel gimmick wears off, the meat of “About Time” is mostly rehashed sit-com material.
There's also a shocking lack of subtlety, particularly in the music cues. In addition to repeat playings of Avro Part's “Spiegel im Spiegel” (which has quickly become the most overplayed bit of instrumental music since Clint Mansell's “Lux Aeterna”) there are LISTEN TO MY LYRICS moments from Rogers & Hart's “Where or When,” Nick Cave's “Into My Arms” (“I don't believe in an interventionist God” at a funeral? Okay, we get it) and Ben Folds' “The Luckiest” (opening line “I don't get many things right the first time” is absolutely forehead-slapping in this context.)
There's only so much maudlin sap an individual can take, and “About Time”'s Tim zipping around his life trying to make himself and everyone in his life happy (his teen bedroom wall adorned with an “Amelie” poster, don't'cha know) quickly becomes tedious. Then Bill Nighy shows up and is awesome and punches you in the heart. It ultimately feels like a cheat, and while there won't be a dry eye in the house, it won't be earned.
Now, for those who have just seen “About Time,” or for those who plan to never see it, I will hit you with my annoying nit-picks. These are SPOILERS but they are SPOILERS for the common good.
1 – Why doesn't Tim just go back to when he first met Mary at the restaurant when he realizes fixing Tom Hollander's play will erase the meeting from the timeline? I know what you are going to say. You are going to say that in doing so, the play will still be a disaster, and Tim is too much of a good guy to do that to Harry. So why doesn't he go to a few hours before dinner and remind Harry to remind the two actors about their lines and THEN go to dinner? All I kept thinking during the Kate Moss show was “you idiot! Go back to the restaurant!” One line of dialogue explaining to me why he couldn't/wouldn't do that would have lowered my blood pressure a great deal. (The implication is that when he goes back a full week to head the other dude off at the party, he also took a moment to save the play when it “came up again.” Also, even if she had already met the dude from the party by the time she had dinner with Tim, she was ready to jump ship – as evident by her giving Tim her number and the fact that they were “meant to be.”)
2 – When Dad jumps back in time at the wedding, why do “we” experience the change? The whole movie is from Tim's point of view. (Oy, that voice over!) But when Dad wants to fix his wedding speech (a fun gag, don't get me wrong) the movie (and, it is implied, Tim) knows about it and changes timelines with it. This is 100% inconsistent with the film, as every previous timeline shift has been from Tim's point of view, with the rest of the world unaware.
3 – Why doesn't Dad save Kit Kat? You think he wants to see his daughter as a drunk getting in car accidents? If we accept the reason why Tim can't do it (more on that in #4) this still doesn't give us a reason why Dad can't do it. He's done having children at this point in his life and his sperm won't change.
4 – Why doesn't Tim (or Dad) age? With all these trips to the past (particularly Dad's, who has spent years in the past) these men should look a lot older than they do. Their bodies are still moving forward in time – indeed, this is a key plot point, explaining why there is “different sperm” in different timelines.
5 – Tim's daughter should be gone, baby, gone. If his sperm changed by going back once, going back a SECOND time (even if to undo what he did) should change it even more.
6 – Dad should have said something about the sperm changes. Come on, Dad!
7 – Dad never said anything about being able to BRING someone along. And yet Tim just grabs Kit Kat and away they fly like Peter Pan. How did Tim know this could work? Or is this just the movie changing things as it goes?
8 – Wait, Tim can move FORWARD in time, too? No, not the future, but he doesn't have to live out the timeline when he's back there? That's new. Dad didn't explain that either. Or we didn't see it. This somewhat colors the whole perception of the movie. (Note – it is slightly possible this was implied and I missed it during the first explanation, but I don't think so.)
9 – They don't have PDF files in England? Okay, this has nothing to do with time travel, but why did Mary flip out so much when the kids destroyed the writer's manuscript. Was it the only one? Hell no, of course not. More to the point, he was just coming over for an informal chat. What British person wouldn't say “oh, chuff chuff” at a little kid coloring all over a manuscript? Particularly a manuscript that is surely in the clouds and could be reproduced in about 10 minutes using even a slow printer?
10 – Why are all the women either trophies or damsels and why did Tim never tell his true love about his power? Eh, that's not a nit-pick, that's a genuine complaint, and further reminder that this movie isn't very good.
SCORE: 5.0 / 10
"About Time" will be released in theaters on November 1st.