Where Were They Then?: About Time (13, B-) – Originally completed 7/16/18

Why this film?: Because I’d already seen Wolf of Wall Street, wasn’t about to watch Z for Zachariah, gave Mary Queen of Scots to Saoirse, and wanted to pick something fun after Dark Matter.

The review: In retrospect, it is not surprising that About Time was written and directed by the same scribe behind Love, Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. As much as About Time’s premise of a young man who is told he can travel backwards through time and re-experience every moment he’s lived through is higher-concept than the rom-com hi-jinks of the other two features, all three films are united by similar assets and detractions. About Time exudes charm and an eagerness to please that succeeds more often than not, but Richard Curtis shows a real inability to distinguish which sequences inventively serve this specific story and which ones come across as contrived and lazy by anyone’s standards. The film is aided by two charming and wholly convincing lead performances but comparatively hindered by supporting characters that are underdeveloped as written and inflexibly played. Everything that’s earnestly romantic about the relationship between Tim and Mary is undermined more often than it should be by the sense that Tim’s meddling through time to win her affections is creepier than it looks, especially since the film takes absolutely no stock in whether Tim has any right to alter the lives of his loved ones, regardless of his good intentions or pure motives in doing so. Never has the ending for such a lightweight yet high-concept project felt more like a cop out, but in spite of everything that blatantly doesn’t work or should at least work better, what About Time gets right is engaging enough to keep  watching, and to keep rooting for it.

The biggest conflict in the film, one that is never actually addressed by the script, direction, or characters, is whether Tim and his father have any right to alter the world around them as they see fit. To its credit, the film keeps their actions at a pretty innocuous level; father James has admitted to mainly using his gifts to read all the books he ever wanted to read and to spend more time with his family, while Tim seems to only use his powers to try and get himself a girlfriend unless he’s helping out friends. Vague gestures are made towards what other men in the Lake family have done with their gifts, as it’s a power only the men of the family can have, but nothing too far beyond how some have ended up happier than others. There’s something nice about a conceit like this being the central premise of something as light as a sometimes wacky slice-of-life romantic comedy, as is About Time’s de rigueur treatment of time travel once Tim learns he can do it. Equally remarkable is that the film simply does not stop at any point to wonder how much Tim should be doing this at all. Yes, such an action would surely violate the lightness of tone maintained in the film’s best scenes, and if About Time goes out of its way to try and dodge any unpleasant implications in Tim and Mary’s courtship, it stumbles pretty badly in a subplot where Tim and his sister Katherine try to stop her years-long relationship with an abusive partner from ever starting. The undoing goes smoothly, with his sister now happily married to Tim’s best friend, but Tim is shocked to discover that he’s returned to a time period where he has a son instead of a daughter, and decides he would rather let his sister get with this awful man and help her out of her circumstances in the present instead of letting her live a happy life where he raises a child of a different gender. It’s an astonishingly selfish decision, one the film takes absolutely no stock of this as he carries it out and is never brought up afterwards.

It is not too much to ask even a feather-weight project juggling serious concepts to take better measure of its stakes and the consequences of its protagonists actions than About Time does, regardless of wherever else the attention of said project is actually focused. This is perhaps the only scene that approaches anything this heavy in its subject matter, give or take the eventual death of a major character that Richard Curtis lavishes with enough attention for it not to feel tossed off. At least the film goes out of its way to set up its central couple as two highly compatible people that never quite met at the right time or in the right way until Tim traveled back far enough to make it happen. There’s no indication that he’s changing himself to make Mary more receptive to him in either a farcical or sinister way, beyond saying some nice things about Kate Moss that he learned from previous meet-cutes with her. Nothing about Tim’s behavior suggests he’s taking advantage of her kindness or lack of self-esteem, something Rachel McAdams is frankly too pretty for a mousy wig and sweater to completely convince us of even though she treats her character’s shyness sincerely. McAdams is able to sketch a pretty captivating personality, and Domhnall Gleeson does an even better job conveying an intelligent and very boyish charm that’s able to carry the film past the crudest and nastiest potentials in its story, even if he can’t overcome the gray areas in the script that go unacknowledged.

What’s oddest is that the film gifts the couple with a rather lovely first date, in a completely lightless underground restaurant where the two spark to each other immediately. Their interaction is sweet, she gives him her phone number, and he undos all of it for the sake of saving the debut of a play written by the vituperative playwright cliché whose house he’s been living in for the past few months. The sequence itself is unfunny and drawn out farther than it needs to be, on top of forcing Tim to spend some unspecified number of days hanging out at a Kate Moss museum exhibit waiting to see her again, only for him to go back in time again to meet her at a party so that she doesn’t end up with the sickly sweet boyfriend he finds her with at the museum. And yet, his encounters with Mary at the museum and especially at the party, which leads to them going to get dinner and sleeping together, are successful and charming sequences in and of themselves only tainted by the concern that Tim’s gathering of information to insert himself in Mary’s life is simply too gross an action to fully get on board with. The combined implications of these scenes present the pair as eminently suited for each other – a thesis the film validates by having them marry and have children as the film progresses – but as convincing as Gleeson and McAdams are, About Time never escapes the air that there’s just something *off* about the whole thing. Mary is written as almost completely friendless and without any confidence in herself and minimally in contact with her family when she meets Tim, and by the time she’s fully integrated herself into his family with no life of her own outside of peripheral gestures towards her work and the same best friend she had when she met Tim. Say whatever you want to About Time being limited solely to Tim’s perspective, in this regard and others, but the spectacle of a young woman meeting a man who has already fallen for her and has used knowledge from their previous interactions to pique her interest in him, and who never finds out that he can travel through time, just doesn’t sit well.

In spite of all that, burdened as About Time is by an inability to take full stock of the scenarios it sets up for itself, and as difficult as it might be to pivot from the spectres gumming up the film from being completely enjoyable, it’s still a completely winning project on a scene-by-scene level. Sure, there are sequences that seem doomed from the outset, like a revolving door of intros to disastrous best man speeches before Tim’s father inevitably gives an eloquent and moving toast, but there’s also more inspired and specific moments like Tim having to stop his father from traveling back in time to add something else to the speech just after giving it. There’s also the wedding itself, where Mary walks down the aisle in a blazing red dress and giggling at how excited Tim is at both the sight of her and  towards the song she elected to walk down the aisle to, where everyone marches uphill to the outdoor reception only for the tent to get blown away by a gust of wind from the rainstorm that’s followed the newlyweds and their guests since they said “I do.” a few minutes ago. Tim almost goes back in time to change the wedding so that they could avoid the storm, but a drenched Mary insists with a giant smile on her face that it was perfect, and that she wouldn’t change it for the world. The highs of About Time are as affecting as the best scenes in Love, Actually without hitting anything as odiously low as the sex-obsessed Brit in America arc or running out of steam the way other storylines in the same film do. About Timemay struggle with characters that aren’t Tim and Mary, but Gleeson and McAdams do wonders for the film by building a couple that work together beautifully without any tired or unpleasant sitcom tropes about husbands and wives. They’re kindred spirits thriving after years together and more adult problems on their hands, still emanating the same excited rapport with each other that they had when they first began dating. Another highlight, perhaps the sturdiest addition to the film, is costume designer Verity Hawkes, who keeps outfitting Gleeson in adult-sized versions of shirts with the sleeve lengths and colors he might’ve worn in elementary school, and who puts McAdams in that great red wedding dress in the first place. It’s a small contribution in an otherwise technically unremarkable film, but Hawkes helps characterize the whole ensemble while helping to put Gleeson’s innocence right on his sleeve, and showing how much he grows up as the years go by.

What About Time almost ends with is a portrait of a young man who has gotten a lease on life because he’s lived so much of it, in the service of acquiring something as remarkable as a wife who’s as in love with him as he is with her, and become closer to family and friends he deeply cares about. This goodwill is bungled pretty badly in the last ten minutes, as the film becomes swallowed in a weirdly sentimental goodbye to a character it had already sent off well enough before Tim declares that he will live through each day only once, as if he will never be able to return to it so that he can fully appreciate it. The positive spin of this could be how the finale indicates everything that About Time has done right up to this point – it best and funniest scenes, the lack of sentiment elsewhere, its sharpest and most specific insights – but feels more endemic of the laziness that’s exemplified the worst of About Time so far, even skipping over the perfectly good ending it already had before stitching on one with a capital-m Message. Why make a film around a protagonist with special abilities that delights in the moments those abilities bring him and help him accomplish if your finale will simply have them swear off those abilities? Why apply this idea now if you’re not going to interrogate his decision to use those powers at any point until now? It’s a dispiriting note to end one, cancelling out a lot of the good stuff About Time had going for it while emphasizing the negatives it never truly acknowledges. About Time is the kind of film that pulls you in enough that it’s flaws only become so pronounced after the fact, like a charming date with a person who’s more problematic than you were expecting. Is it a good time? Absolutely. Are there moments you’ll never forget, for better or worse? Not really. Would you see them again? No, probably not, but it really was a nice time while it lasted. At least until the end.

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