Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Worthwhile Addition To The Richard Curtis Library, About Time Is Much More Than The Time Traveler’s Wife 2.0

The Good: Acting, Characters, Direction, Plot development
The Bad: Somewhat derivative
The Basics: About Time is funny and heartwarming and is arguably the very best alternative to the big, special effects-driven blockbusters this autumn!

When it comes to films, there are few that I will go back to and re-evaluate after my first viewing. I think that the purpose of a review is to give thoughtful analysis of the movie one is presented and to consider it for exactly what one sees on-screen. The only weakness of such an evaluation process is that it does not take into account how a film ages upon multiple viewings (unless one watches it multiple times before reviewing it). One of the few films I have gone back to and re-rated and found I appreciated it more upon subsequent viewings was the Richard Curtis masterpiece Love Actually (reviewed here!). Because I felt I had been too harsh on the movie the first time around, my enthusiasm for Richard Curtis’s new film, About Time was tempered with a reasonable fear that I might be too lenient in evaluating it. However, as the weeks passed and I struggled to get out to the movie theater to take in new movies, I was surprised to discover that the movie I was pining to see (having learned about it only a week before its U.S. release and having watched no trailers for the film) was About Time. After the brief, but intense, anticipation, I finally managed to get to a theater playing the film.

And it’s good.

Actually, About Time is great on a number of levels and the one that is most germane to me is this: it made me feel something. As a movie critic who has watched, literally, thousands of films with a critical eye, it takes a lot for a movie these days to get me to feel something. The ones that have the most difficult time evoking an emotional reaction are the movies that are romances. Romantic comedies are formulaic and romantic dramas are usually designed to tug on the heartstrings, so it is a tough sell for me because I come into the movie expecting the play on my emotions and I remain guarded against it for the sake of objectivity. With About Time, emotional barriers do not work; the film is smart and legitimately charming, without trying so hard. In fact, some of the best moments of the movie work because there is an effortless quality to the characters and the film’s direction that leads the viewer to witness and experience (what appears to be) genuine emotion and react accordingly.

The other big concern for me when going into About Time was that the plot seemed incredibly derivative of The Time Traveler’s Wife (reviewed here!), which also starred Rachel McAdams. Fortunately, writer and director Richard Curtis is aptly able to manage not making a cheap retread of the popular novel/film and he creates something legitimately smart on his own. Instead of belaboring the time-travel aspect in About Time, Curtis focuses on the human aspect and the way people relate. The film has a very brief lesson on the conceit before exploring the effects of how the protagonist, Tim, deals with having the ability to travel in time.

On New Year’s Eve, Tim goes through the usual routine with his family, which for that day includes a terrible party. At it, Tim knocks over some drinks while being rushed by his friend to the living room and then shakes the hand of the girl who clearly wants to kiss him. The next morning, his father – who mysteriously retired at age fifty and is always available to Tim for conversations and table tennis – reveals to him the big family secret: the men in the family have the ability to travel in time. They can only go back in time, to their own life, to make changes. Tim immediately tests this theory and is amazed when it works; he goes back to the prior night, misses the glasses and kisses the girl. The following summer, he spends attracted to his sister’s visiting friend, Charlotte. Through that incident, he learns that love does not change just because he can go back to influence events.

Moving out to London, Tim moves in with a playwright (Harry) who knew his father and one fateful night, he has a date in a blackened restaurant where he meets an amazing woman. Meeting Mary out on the street after the date, Tim and Mary hit it off and he gets her phone number. Upon returning home, though, he learns that Harry’s play was an utter disaster and, in fixing things for Harry, Tim and Mary never meet. Recalling that Mary is a big fan of Kate Moss, Tim spends the summer hanging out at London’s art museum where there is a Kate Moss photo exhibit. When she finally passes through the exhibit, he learns she has a boyfriend she met about a month before and he goes back in time to stop them from meeting so he might meet her instead. Having managed to finally meet Mary and get her interested in him, Tim and Mary develop a real relationship going forward. Though their love grows, Tim finds complications in marrying, having a child (which becomes a fixed point he cannot travel back before, lest he unmake his daughter), and tragedies surrounding his impetuous sister and loving father.

About Time is one of those films where one knows almost immediately that the two top-billed actors in the film are going to end up together. Fans who recognize Rachel McAdams’s voice will know the first time Mary speaks in the dark that Domhnall Gleason’s Tim has met the woman he will be with and the magic of the film is in how the two actually come together and then the effects their being together have on the other people in their lives. Tim sets of a potentially catastrophic series of events in motion when he tries to save his sister, Kit Kat, and rectifying his temporal mistakes is glossed over (does he simply fix the mistakes of traveling back before fixed points by then willing himself to not make the disastrous time travel attempt? It’s not clear). Instead of worrying about much in the way of temporal mechanics, Richard Curtis smartly remains focused on the human element.

The love story in About Time works in large measure because Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleason have great on-screen chemistry. While there seems to be a wink and a nudge to the audience from McAdams in her describing Mary as “plain” when she’s a Hollywood-beautiful actress, the somewhat goofy and very real-looking Gleason compliments her look marvelously. The two sparkle on screen and they interact like a realistic, viable couple which entirely sells the realism of the fantastic elements.

The supporting cast, which includes the ever-magnificent Bill Nighy and versatile Lindsay Duncan and Tom Hollander, makes About Time seem much more realistic, as opposed to larger-than-life. Richard Curtis, in addition to delivering a mostly-solid script with a lot of charming lines, directs About Time wonderfully. He uses music as an auditory cue in several of the time travel scenes and when he defies that convention while using recognizable music, that plays well to the audience that is trying to anticipate the film’s next move.

Curtis is also smart enough to not bombard the viewer with clichés, as well. When Tim runs into Charlotte after having a pretty magnificent run with Mary, he neither blows the relationship with Mary, nor takes the cheap opportunity to have sex with Charlotte and then go back and “fix” the infidelity. Instead, it leads to a deeper character revelation for Tim and that plays as remarkably fresh.

Ultimately, About Time succeeds where so many romantic films fail: by creating viable characters and putting them in a situation where it reminds the viewer of the delights of love in our complicated world.

For other films featuring time travel, please check out my reviews of:
The Back To The Future Trilogy
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Men In Black III


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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