A film review by Craig J. Koban November 22, 2013


2013, R, 123 mins.


Rachel McAdams as Mary  /  Bill Nighy as Tim's father  /  Domhnall Gleeson as Tim  /  Lee Asquith-Coe as Bin Man  /  Tom Hollander as Harry  /  Margot Robbie as Charlotte  /  Lisa Eichhorn as Mary's Mum

Written and directed by Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis’ ABOUT TIME is kind of a two-for-the-price-of-one movie.  It’s both a romantic comedy and a science fiction inspired time travel drama, and even though the marriage of the two is bold to say the least, it’s pretty clear that ABOUT TIME emerges – as the film progresses – as a superior romcom and just a so-so fantasy.  The characters and performances stand out the most part, but even lay fans of science fiction may scratch their heads a bit too much throughout the story and question the internal logic of its temporal trekking main character.  Like most films that involve time travel, you’re either willing to accept the story’s more glaring paradoxes…or you’re not.  I leaned more heavily towards the former in ABOUT TIME, mostly because the film’s other inherent charms won me over. 

Obviously, Curtis’ strengths reside with writing really good ensemble pictures that allow the performers to really shine through, and I have been an unapologetic sucker for most of his films (like his 1994 scripted FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and his 2003 directorial debut in LOVE ACTUALLY, still required Christmas viewing every year in my home).  He manages to find a way to bridge the gap between laughs and pathos in his films with a real keen eye, which helps allow even a film like ABOUT TIME – with its really out-there premise – to still remain dramatically genuine and intimate.  We are drawn into the film not because of the fantastical notion that its main character can travel back and forth in time and correct social mistakes that he has made; instead, we find ourselves immersed in the film because of the journey of the characters and the surprisingly spot-on commentary the script makes about the nature of spousal and father/son relationships.   

21-year-old Tim (Domhall Gleeson) is a down-on-his luck Brit that manages to really fail at the art of attracting women.  In the opening scenes of the film we see him nervously fidgeting his way through a New Year’s Eve party, and when the clock strikes midnight a young girl clearly expresses – albeit non-verbally – a desire for him to kiss her.  Well, he botches the opportunity.  If only he had a manner of reliving the encounter and setting things straight.  Well, Tim’s father (Curtis regular Bill Nighy, as wonderfully spry as ever here) reveals to Tim a family secret that all of the men gain once they turn 21: they can travel through time.  Not only that, but it’s easy!  All Tim has to do is go into a dark and secluded area, close his eyes, clench his fists, and – BOOM! – he’s back in the past. 



Tim clearly thinks his dear ol’ dad has a screw loose, but when he humors him and attempts his first journey into the past, he is astounded by the fact that it does indeed work.  However, Tim’s father does reveal that there are, of course, several limitations to time travel.  Beyond not being able to “Kill Hitler or shag Joan of Arc,” Tim can only travel backward during his own lifetime (no traveling into the future allowed).  Once Tim begins to learn the ins and outs of his new fangled powers, he decides to put them to the test and, yup, try to score a perfect girlfriend.  His first meet-cute with a beautiful blonde bombshell named Charlotte (Margot Robbie) is anything but, seeing as he awkwardly uses time travel to make his courtship of her more complicated.  Learning from these mistakes, he then sets his sights on Mary (Rachel McAdams, as luminous and likeable as she’s ever been) and after three botched attempts they both manage to begin dating, then get married, and later have children.  Alas, as life’s complications begin to rear their ugly heads, Tim finds himself using time travel even more...and with many unintentional side effects. 

Again, it’s the cast of ABOUT TIME and the wonderfully paired Gleeson and McAdams that makes the film such a pleasure to sit through.  Gleeson himself, despite not really being handsome leading man material, gets considerable mileage out of his gawky charisma, which makes him more compelling as a screen presence.  McAdams – her third film playing a time traveler's wife (see THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) can play infectiously warm hearted, beautiful, and spirited women in her sleep, and beyond her radiant glow and thousand watt smile she manages to have a natural and unforced chemistry with Gleeson that serves the film well.  You want to see this couple together and you want to see their happiness through to the end, which is what all great romcoms should aspire to.  The rest of the cast is reliably strong, like Tom Hollander playing Tim’s landlord that just happens to be one of the most hysterically anti-social playwrights in the history of movies.  And Bill Nighy lends a level of class to just about any film he occupies, even though I wished the film had more of him. 

Now, the big distracting elephant in the room, so to speak, for this film is its time travel premise, and part of the problem here is that it never really establishes a firm set of rules to adhere to.  Tim’s dad does offer up a set of core time travel fundamentals early on, but the screenplay seems to have a peculiar knack for either ignoring them altogether or just simply adding on new rules whenever its convenient.  When Tim is presented with a rather odd or, at times, emotionally heartbreaking calamity that requires him to fix it via his gift, Curtis’ screenplay manages to provide just the right bit of expositional dialogue or handy verbal advice from the father that sometimes contradicts the laws the were introduced early on.  When the film careens towards its third act and Tim’s life is dealt with a truly soul crushing blow, he is able to use time travel that, even under modest scrutiny, does not seem to adhere to the film’s own internal logic about using it. 

Still, though, if you willing to forgive and/or turn a blind eye to the film’s wonky time travel fundamentals, then ABOUT TIME has its share of many sublime moments.  I especially loved a sequence when Tim goes back in time and tries to ensure that one of the actor in his landlord’s play does not blank out on stage in front of a live audience…but Tim amusingly makes a key blunder along the way.  Then there is a truly memorable scene – initially not involving time travel at all – where Tim and Charlotte have there first meeting…in total darkness…at a restaurant that is served by blind waiters.  The entire moment is wonderful as it allows for the dialogue exchanges between McAdams and Gleeson sell the scene and not our ability to visibly see the actors interact. 

ABOUT TIME also has many legitimate things to say about the nature of best intentions versus the unexpected outcomes of such noble-minded intentions.  It also reflects on how time becomes such a precious commodity when we often have no control over it.  We see Tim journey back and forth in his own lifetime to build a meaningful life and loving marriage with Charlotte, but then the film slyly segues into becoming a touching tribute to father/son ties.  Even when ABOUT TIME does not seem to stick to its own pre-established set of rules regarding its time travel premise, I simply found myself so engaged and ultimately won over by the performances that, in the end, I didn’t really care all that much.  Richard Curtis may not have the faculty for fully harnessing this film’s sci-fi trappings, but he unquestionably knows how to write agreeably delightful characters for us to root for and cling to. 

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