"From the creator of Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral."
So says the poster for About Time, the new film from Richard Curtis, resident giant of the modern romantic comedy, which was recently named to the New York Film Festival's main slate. If that proclamation in itself wasn't enough, it is superimposed over a laughing Rachel McAdams with her arm around lead Domhnall Gleeson as raindrops fall around them. The trailer places the romance between their characters front and center, devoting much of its 2 and a half m runtime to their first encounter, blossoming affection and subsequent strife. The official synopsis doesn't shy away from this either, stating --
At the age of 21, Tim Lake discovers he can travel in time. The night after another unsatisfactory New Year party, Tim's father tells his son that the men in his family have always had the ability to travel through time. Tim cannot change history, but he can change what happens and has happened in his own life--so he decides to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend. When he accidentally erases the timeline, he must try and win her over again.
All these factors may combine to make you think that you're about to watch a romcom, and you would be excused for this assumption. You would, however, be mistaken. In fact, the romantic subplot is the weakest element in the film, a slot there's tough competition for. There's no real or believable reason for Tim and Mary (the character played by McAdams) to fall in love. The only justification for Tim's attachment to Mary is that she's played by Rachel McAdams, who is billed second in the credits. Mary is not even a fully fleshed-out character; Curtis relies on McAdams' natural likability to evoke the support of the audience and just hands her the blandest stereotypes.
Moreover, this phase of the movie is when Tim has just discovered his time traveling powers. Curtis uses every possible opportunity to wring a joke out of Tim's abilities or show them off. Thus, you get to see Tim looping his way back and forth into Mary's heart (and pants) but not why she would open either thing for him. The "love story," as it were, begins and ends without major conflict.
Lack of conflict is a complaint that can be levied upon About Time across the board. On one hand, time travel makes everything too easy for Tim. Too shy to make out with a pretty girl as the New Year rings in? No worries; Tim just goes back in time and attempts the same thing again. On the other hand, the limited scope of his powers -- he can't change history, but only his own life -- sets up unsurmountable restrictions quickly. Tim can be in just one place at a time. So, if he uses his powers to help out his landlord's career, then he can't have met Mary at the same time. This tragedy is overcome in a flash, in a coincidence that is symptomatic of the film's happy-go-lucky, low-stakes nature.
However, as the primary love story in the plot underwhelms, another one emerges that is far more accomplished and moving. It dominates the latter half of the film and redeems it from the unengaging cliche of what came before. It is the relationship between Tim and his father, played to perfection by Bill Nighy. Curtis' writing doesn't magically improve here, but his direction does. The scope of this subplot is smaller, which renders it more intimate. The theme of this thread -- the transience of things -- is more primal and, consequently, more poignant.
Certain questions arise the moment the ability to redo life is up for grabs: how many repeat attempts are enough? How long should one tread (or be allowed to tread) the same ground before moving on? Most important, how inevitable is letting go? Nighy and Gleeson have an effortless chemistry between them; two scenes are sufficient to fall for their father-son dynamic. Nighy is given a stock dad archetype to play with by Curtis, but he lends it more gravitas and pathos than the role was probably even worthy of. He does the dramatic heavy lifting in the film, and steals the show. The last scene between the two is the actual "climax" of the story, with Mary somewhere in the background. It is cheesy and sappy but also resonant. There were plenty of sniffles and tears in my row by that point.
To sum it up: yes, About Time is not what you are expecting it to be. It doesn't even succeed at what it's portrayed as. But, since when has the inaccurate marketing position of a film been a valid criticism against it? The film works, and the tears from the people sitting next to me were genuine.