Friday, November 1, 2013

About Time: Needs more ripening

About Time (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, and quite stupidly, for fleeting profanity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

At first blush, this fantasy rom-com seems to be about young love, and finding the perfect soul-mate.

Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale about missed opportunities.

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, left) can't begin to grasp what his father (Bill Nighy) has just
confessed: that the men in their family have the ability to travel backwards in time.
Very soon, though, Tim will realize that he does indeed share this incredible talent ...
and he'll have plenty of fun — and not a little heartbreak — trying to get a handle
on what he can and cannot do.
No, wait, it might be a parable on the importance of embracing every single moment of life’s precious gift.

In the final analysis, though, writer/director Richard Curtis’ deeply personal film focuses on the indestructible — and loving — bond between fathers and sons. And alla that other stuff mentioned above.

One can’t help feeling that this is a valentine to Curtis’ own father: either a celebration of a happy relationship with the elder Curtis (who recently died), or a heartfelt wish that they could have enjoyed the affectionate bond that links this story’s Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) and his father (Bill Nighy).

Which is interesting, since this bittersweet film is being marketed as a sweet, whimsical love story between Tim and Mary (Rachel McAdams). One gets the sense that Universal Pictures is approaching this publicity campaign very warily, not quite certain whether this creature is fish or fowl.

About Time is about all the elements cited above, of course, which is both its greatest virtue and underlying curse. As often is the case with a filmmaker’s long-gestating pet project, Curtis can’t quite get a handle on how best to articulate this unusual saga; as a result, his film wanders a bit, even stumbles at times.

This slightly unfocused approach is surprising — and disappointing — given that Curtis so unerringly kept a few dozen infatuated characters spinning quite successfully in his 2003 masterpiece, Love, Actually. This new film, in contrast, offers dozens of sparkling little moments, all charming in their own right, which wind up being greater than the sum of their parts.

And once we reach the climax, complete with a moral delivered with all the formality of a fable from Aesop, Curtis doesn’t know how to conclude; he stutters his way through a lengthy, didactic epilogue that dilutes much of what came before. We’re clearly intended to be left with a sense of radiant joy over life’s endless possibilities, but instead — at best — we part with Shakespeare’s sweet sorrow.

At worst, with deep regret over our own missed opportunities. Probably not the mood Curtis intended.

Tim, a somewhat shy and geeky lad, has grown up in a loving household on the Cornwall coast, in the warm embrace of a family devoted to one another. He has enjoyed the frequent company of his father, who chose to retire at 50 in order to spend more time at home; Tim’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) delights in longstanding rituals such as the elaborate outdoor afternoon teas.

Tim’s adored younger sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), is an irrepressible free spirit who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing shoes: something of a latter-day British flower child. The family unit is completed by Uncle D (Richard Cordery), a kind-hearted but simple-minded fellow who’s never quite sure what’s going on. (And, ironically, Curtis never quite knows what to do with this character.)

Although surrounded by people who love him, Tim is nonetheless acutely aware that he can’t attract a girlfriend to save his life. After a dreadful New Year’s Eve party — apparently an annual ritual — which merely reinforces this dismal fact, Tim’s father elects to share the family secret, passed along from father to son, on the latter’s 21st birthday.

(The unspoken implication here is that Tim was born on New Year’s Day, an intriguing piece of information left undiscussed.)

The revelation: The men in the Lake lineage can travel in time.

Only backwards, and only to moments experienced during their own lives. As a goggle-eyed Tim listens to his father explain the details, in Nighy’s best flustered delivery, one couldn’t kill Hitler or “shag Cleopatra.” But one can correct one’s own mistakes.

To a point. But such limitations must be learned through personal experience.

Naturally, Tim doesn’t believe this; he changes his tune when he successfully jumps back to the ghastly New Year’s Eve party, and adjusts a few events to his greater satisfaction.


Time passes; Tim does what all good British lads do, since the time of Dickens and before, and sets out to make his fortune in the big, bad city of London. Turns out Tim has trained to be a lawyer — not a bad job, that — and he lucks into accommodations with a family friend: the irascible Harry (Tom Hollander), a tortured playwright forever on the verge of completing the play that will make him the toast of the town.

One fateful evening, Tim allows himself to be dragged by good friend Jay (Will Merrick) to a most unusual restaurant: Dans Le Noir, where patrons are seated in total darkness, and served by blind staff. (Believe it or not, this is an actual chain of restaurants and spas.) They wind up sharing a table with two young women, one of whom, Mary, tentatively bonds with Tim.

The spark ignites; the connection takes. Tim can feel it.

He returns home to find Harry in a distraught funk, the long-awaited debut of his stage masterpiece having been ruined by an actor who forgot his lines. No problem, Tim knows; he clandestinely bounces back in time, saves the play, and delights in the glowing reviews that Harry shares the next morning.

Except that now — in this timeline — Tim never met Mary, because he was busy playing Fairy Godmother at the theater.

You begin to see the problems.

What ensues, then, is a charming — if occasionally cluttered — blend of Groundhog Day, The Butterfly Effect and The Time Traveler’s Wife. (You may recall that McAdams starred in the latter, as well, which is rather intriguing for such a narrow cinematic sub-genre.) Tim eventually maneuvers himself into Mary’s life once again; they fall into the sort of witty, banter-laden relationship that has become the signature of a Richard Curtis rom-com.

As also is typical of Curtis, this courtship’s early stages play out as a montage against some well-chosen music, particularly a key song delivered by buskers performing in the London Underground walkways. Indeed, the entire soundtrack is lovingly layered with ballads by Ben Folds, Ellie Goulding, Nick Cave, Ron Sexsmith and The Cure, all wrapped up into an enchanting bow by composer Nick Laird-Clowes, of The Dream Academy.

As also is true of Curtis films, Tim and Mary are surrounded by quirky, if downright eccentric friends and family members. We’ve already met most of them by now; others include Mary’s best friend, Joanna (Vanessa Kirby), and Tim’s insecure fellow lawyer-in-training, Rory (Joshua McGuire).

Everything seems to be working out, certainly with some judicious do-overs on Tim’s part, many of which are played for droll comic effect. But as time passes, we can’t help noticing that Kit Kat’s ubiquitous sunny smile has faded, and that — horrors! — she’s allowing herself to be seen wearing shoes.

And that’s the thing: Despite all the joy that radiates from this story, Curtis includes the ominous awareness of an additional shoe that has yet to drop. Those of us with a fondness for time-travel stories well remember the painful decision Ashton Kutcher eventually makes, at the end of The Butterfly Effect. (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, as a certain pointy-eared Vulcan famously observed.)

Fortunately, happily, Curtis doesn’t get that dire, but he still puts Tim through an emotional wringer. Even magical gifts have limitations, and they can’t necessarily spare us from the ups and downs that affect everybody, every day.

Trouble is, Curtis isn't content to convey this lesson through Tim’s many and varied actions; the story’s final act descends into tedious said-bookism and Gleeson’s sermonizing voice-overs, the latter employed to a truly irritating extreme, which also works against the film’s overall charm.

Gleeson and McAdams are adorable together, their various ultra-cute encounters and interactions delivered with the endearing style that Curtis orchestrates so well, borrowing from witty screen couples going back to William Powell and Myrna Loy, in their delightful Thin Man movies. And while Gleeson and McAdams may not have the radiant incandescence of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts — in the Curtis-scripted Notting Hill — they’re equally satisfying in a down-to-earth-delicious way.

(One can’t help raising an eyebrow, however, when Mary — sporting McAdams’ gorgeous features — claims to be insecure about her appearance. We really need to abolish, for all time, that overworked, wholly unbelievable cinema cliché.)

Curtis doesn’t dwell on the likely side effects of capricious time travel, although he tries to maintain internal consistency as far as these characters are concerned. Even so, the rules are a bit arbitrary: One can travel back and change the past, or one can merely “visit it” and return, having altered nothing. But as we gradually realize that Tim’s father is fiddling with the past, over in Cornwall, while Tim himself is adjusting this and that, we can’t help wondering whether the time stream will survive.

How could either Tim or his father trust the events of any given day, knowing that something might be manipulated out of existence ... or, alternatively, might be the result of prior adjustment by the other party?

Such questions, layered atop this narrative’s often rambling structure, make About Time less successful than Curtis’ many previous hits. I understand where he wishes to take us, and I certainly get the underlying message; indeed, it’s delivered with a sledge hammer. But heartfelt good intentions aren’t always sufficient: Curtis has based his rom-com career on making us believe that the impossible can come true, where love is involved.

This time, sadly, he isn’t quite as persuasive.

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