Uneven About Time a Bewitching Father-Son Drama
About Time is a good movie. It is also a remarkably infuriating one. Writer/director Richard Curtis’s latest is as glorious and as exasperating as anything found in either Love Actually or Pirate Radio ended up being, and while the highs outnumber the lows they aren’t quite enough so to make the more annoying portions any less maddening than they sadly prove to be. It is a movie that I feel reasonably okay recommending but only with numerous reservations, the father-son dynamics of the narrative working splendidly while the love story itself comes up ever-so slightly short.
It has a complicated enough conceit for a movie that, at its core, is amazingly simple. On his 21st birthday Tim Hall (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) the family secret that all the male members of his bloodline apparently have the ability to time travel. Not his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). Most definitely not his beloved mum (Lindsay Duncan). Only him and no one else, a treasured secret he and dear old dead can share, learn from and manipulate to their leisure.
There are rules, and it isn’t like Tim has free reign to go back to any point in time that he wants or change the course of human history. But, exploring his own life? Making different choices? Going along a new path? This he can do, and by doing so maybe he’ll be able to help someone he’s close to live a better life or find someone to open his heart to he otherwise might not ever have met.
Initially it appears as if Curtis is going to use these ideas and this scenario to tell straightforward love story, Tim meeting the girl of his dreams, Mary (Rachel McAdams), only to subsequently lose her when he travels backwards to help playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) achieve the success his latest work richly deserves. A good portion of the first couple of acts revolve around him trying to get back into her sphere of existence, doing all he can to win the girl’s heart without coming across like a court jester playing the fool for a sadistic monarch.
But it quickly becomes apparent this is not the story Curtis is interested in telling, and as enchanting as McAdams is early on as things progress her character gets pushed more and more towards the sidelines. Tim and Mary’s love affair is something of an aggravating afterthought, and even though their initial meet-cute is glorious, the rest of their romance is one-dimensional and stilted. It is as almost as if Curtis needed Mary as a device to get Tim where he wanted him and nothing more, that she’s a beguiling MacGuffin and not a fully formed three-dimensional character. As such their relationship isn’t as touching as I hoped it would be, all of which makes their final scenes together more routine and rudimentary than they are anything memorable.
The same cannot be said, however, for the actual story Curtis is telling. In the same way that Field of Dreams isn’t about baseball, the director uses time travel and romantic comedy trappings to unexpectedly lead the audience into an honest, authentic and blissfully emotional saga of a son’s relationship with his father. The heart of the story belongs to Tim and his dad, their respective journeys, where they are headed, how they have lived their lives, that is what all of this has been about, and for all the misdirection the director clumsily utilizes the eventual destination still brought authentic tears to my eyes that happily cascaded down my cheeks at just the perfect moment.
None of which would matter if Gleeson and Nighy weren’t so darn terrific and shared some of the best on-screen chemistry I’ve seen this year. They make a dynamic pair, each so easily playing off of the other their final scenes come off as magnificent even if Curtis is breaking his own time travel rules in order for them to even sharing this particular moment together. I believed their familial bond, never once doubting the strength of their relationship, both actors having grand time sharing one another’s company making everything happening to resonate in a way that is personal and intimate.
The counterpoint is that, as beautifully realized as these moments can be, they only cast a spotlight on the portions of the film that don’t come off nearly as well. I’ve already stated my complaints in regards to both the love story and Mary’s character, but the shortcomings unfortunately do not end there. Kit Kat is also a character that is irritating in a multitude of ways, and while I have the feeling Curtis wanted to explore tangents of mental illness, recovery, support and reconciliation, sadly none of this happens in a way that feels real.
There are other issues, most notably in regards to pacing, which has never been one of the director’s strengths, even his screenwriter-only efforts like Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral have problems in regards to length, and with side plots that add little and rarely go anywhere of interest, there’s plenty here to be irritated by. But even with these problems, even though portions of the story prove to be a chore to sit through, the core elements of About Time have a melodious, intoxicating quality that made me smile. Curtis has made a nice movie, just not an excellent one, the romantic elements just not rising to the same euphoric heights as the father-son saga everything inside this story purposefully revolves around.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)