Romantic comedy fans have long been starving for satisfying genre fare to hit the box office, all the Valentine’s Days and New Year’s Eves and Arbor Days (surely, the next one, right?) notwithstanding, and it’s long seemed as if the When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail glory days (we loved Nora Ephron, what can we say?) were far gone. Yet, with Love Actually writer and director Richard Curtis finally returning to the sort of films he excels at crafting, it’s perhaps a bit early to consider the entire genre dead. Maybe it’s just sleeping. Curtis’ About Time certainly comes with an enviable pedigree (any film that features Curtis directing Bill Nighy is cause to celebrate), but it’s the film’s charming cast and cleverly tangled plot conceit that keeps it ticking right along.
About Time centers on hapless young Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, who is utterly adorable in every frame of the film), a sweet guy who has never been very lucky in love. Tim’s been lucky elsewhere, however, as he had an exceedingly idyllic childhood in the arms of his “sturdy” mother Mary (Lindsay Duncan), deeply bookish dad (Nighy), heartbreakingly sweet Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery), and whimsical sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) and he’s soon to embark on an exciting (well, somewhat) legal career in London. Before all that, however, he’s got some time to kill at his family home, and it’s only after one of his family’s rip-roaring New Year’s Eve parties that dear old dad shares an essential secret with his only son. He’s a time traveler. And he’s also a time traveler. They are both time travelers, thanks to some sort of unique genetic quirk that allows the men of their family to pop into a dark place, close their eyes tight, clench their fists really tight, and wish themselves back in time (only during their lifetime, and only in the past). Tim knows exactly what he’ll use this amazing discovery for.
He’s going to use it to snag a lady.
Shockingly, Tim struggles with both the complexities of time travel and of modern romance before eventually meeting The One and subsequently losing her to (of course) the complexities of time travel. And probably also modern romance. While About Time could easily focus its plot on the mechanics of Tim and Mary’s (Rachel McAdams) romance, the film is surprisingly less about their continued meet-cutes (in fact, they only meet three times in the film, with only two engineered by a desperate Tim) and more about Tim’s struggles to tailor his time traveling in a way that feels both satisfying and sustainable. Tim and Mary’s love story is undeniably sweet, but as About Time unspools, the film steadily builds on various relationships in Tim’s life, not just the one he has with the love of his life.
McAdams has notably already starred in another time travel-centric romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife, but while that film was dead serious about its leading man’s abilities to move through dimensions (an appropriate choice, considering the film was a far more dramatic affair and star Eric Bana’s time traveling was a massive problem that he was unable to control), About Time uses it as merely a charming plot device, something somewhat wacky and problematic that doesn’t necessarily have life or death consequences. (Okay, fine, yes, there are some life or death consequences in About Time, but nothing that detracts from its light-hearted tone and earnest message.) For a time travel film, About Time is less about time travel and more about romance, relationships, and richly earned laughs – you know, like the best sort of romantic comedy.
And yet time travel is still at the heart of About Time and, as is often the case with time travel films, the rules and limitations of Tim’s gift aren’t exactly hard and fast, and the final third of the film is rife with complications that never get quite explained. Rules that previously applied suddenly don’t seem so essential, an unexpected consequence is fixed without nary a hitch (or a series of scenes to explain just how it was actually fixed), and a late-breaking rule is revealed without much fanfare. Time travel glitches aside, About Time is a satisfying and sweet romantic comedy that doesn’t rely on its gimmick for interest, but instead leans on charm and humor that deliver in a big way.
The Upside: Domhnall Gleeson is exceedingly charming; Bill Nighy is predictably excellent; the film has a charming, sweet, and funny tone that goes down quite smooth; the time travel conceit is used in an unexpected and clever manner.
The Downside: The ladies of the film aren’t given much to do, especially Rachel McAdams as Mary (who basically just gets to be vaguely lovely); the time travel rules aren’t exactly tight and are occasionally confusing.
On the Side: Zooey Deschanel was originally cast as Mary (the McAdams Mary, not the Duncan Mary – that would have been weird).
This review originall appeared as part of our coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival.