Domhnall Gleeson as Tim
Rachel McAdams as Mar
Bill Nighy as Tim’s father
Lydia Wilson as Kit Kat
Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mother
Tom Hollander as Harry
Vanessa Kirby as Joanna
Margot Robbie as Charlotte
Tom Hughes as Jimmy
Catherine Steadman as Tina
Richard Cordery as Uncle Desmond
Will Merrick as Jay
Joshua McGuire as Rory
Richard Griffiths as Sir Tom
Richard E. Grant as Actor
“About Time” is charming but not much else, mainly because writer-director Richard Curtis doesn’t seem capable of more as he desperately tries to recapture the magic of his better films.
On his 21st birthday, charmingly pathetic Tim (Gleeson) is informed by his father (Bill Nighy) that he has the power to travel through to time–albeit with some limitations–a conceit neither Tim nor Curtis bother to take advantage of, opting instead for just another romantic comedy. It’s not just any other romantic comedy, of course, but another Richard Curtis romantic comedy with all that entails including the affable, tongue-tied lead, the obliviously stupid best friend (two in fact!) and the eccentric family members. Curtis does this, I presume, because it works and if you’ve never seen one of his films that would be enough; if you have, however… well, familiarity and contempt and all that.
The bugger is the lack of effort. Tim isn’t interested in anything more than being a character in a romantic comedy, with the time travel stuff tucked in a closet and forgotten except for the rare moments when he can go back and make similar but different embarrassing mistakes over and over again. Which is the only trick “About Time” has up its sleeve. It’s not a bad trick as far as it goes; Curtis is a clever enough filmmaker and experienced enough comedian to time his embarrassment comedy just so, getting the most out of Tim’s repetitive social fumblings. But his lack of interest in his central idea (beyond a hook to catch the audience’s eye) transposes into a lack of interest in his story.
What it comes down to is a lack of guts; Curtis is smart enough to know the implications of what he has dreamed up, but he never follows them through, keeping conflict from developing. And without conflict, there’s no drama or even really a plot. Sure there are slow revelations, such as the night he meets Mary (McAdams) for the first time and then loses her by using his abilities to fix his playwright flatmates’ (Hollander) horrific opening night. This potential lesson in unintended consequences is completely overlooked as Tim just uses some plucky romantic comedy skill to hook up with her anyway, so that we can actually have a movie to watch and so that he can learn, even with the power at his command, ultimately the only direction he can really move in time is forwards, the same as the rest of us.
As insights go it’s not that subtle or original, and while simple, straightforward ideas can be as incisive and powerful as the ones that sneak up on you, this is not one of those cases. The only real attraction are the actors themselves who do take advantage of having some decent dialogue to say to make a real go of it, especially Gleeson and his family members, but there’s only so much they can do, especially against the built in repetitiveness of “About Time’s” structure.
What Curtis really needs is the ability to go back to when he was inventive and fresh and re-learn what it was he was doing back then, so that he doesn’t make any more movies like this. He says it’s his last as a director and maybe that’s even true, or maybe that’s just him from the future looking back and deciding he can’t change anymore. Maybe he should write a comedy about that.