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NYFF Review: Time Travel Rom-Com 'About Time' Starring Rachel McAdams & Domnhall Gleeson

by Gabe Toro
September 23, 2013 11:07 AM
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We’ve sat through an entire generation of fantasy and science fiction films about a protagonist gifted with extraordinary powers who first Resists, then Accepts The Call, which almost always involves saving the world, defeating a powerful villain, and re-establishing the status quo. Very rarely does anyone seek a cause beyond preventing the apocalypse, placing them within a narrative where they are rewarded not for being proactive, but rather reacting to the latest large-scale disaster. Imagine where we’d be as a film society today if Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker fully dedicated himself to wrestling. Right off the bat, the young lad at the center of Richard Curtis’ “About Time” does what any of us would do if we were gifted with extraordinary powers: he tries to romance Rachel McAdams.

It’s Tim’s twenty-first birthday when he’s given a most unusual gift from his father: as it turns out, all the men in their family can travel through time. The rules, as loosely explained by the freewheeling patriarch played by Bill Nighy, are that Tim can only visit moments in his own past, though whether he can influence the lives of others is (distressingly) fuzzy. Tim isn’t fazed by the fact that he can’t “kill Hitler,” because he decides to use the power to find a girlfriend. Though this is depicted as being difficult, Tim, as played by Domnhall Gleeson, is a gangly but handsome fellow with charm and an acute sense of humor. Curtis’ handling of this character feels a lot like what your mother used to tell you: slouching and mumbling is unattractive, dear.

Tim tests his powers during a summer getaway with family, attempting to woo a dreamgirl that might as well have the words “female Baxter” tattooed on her chest – not that Tim will reject her, but that it’s easy to see him with someone a bit more relatable and full of personality. His time travel teaches him that she is fickle enough to reject his advances with a caveat on the last day of summer, then rebuff his advances again at the beginning of the season for entirely different reasons. This power doesn’t make women any less of a riddle to Tim, who apparently only uses his abilities to get laid, though no character ever seems to have a problem with money over the film’s runtime.

Tim’s real adventure away from home begins when he shares a loft with cartoonish playwright Harry (Tom Hollander). By day he’s arguing legal briefs through strenuous post-graduate studies, and by night he’s suffering through Harry’s constant, borderline suicidal temper tantrums; Hollander, a gifted comedic actor, is stuck playing this character as a skimpy comic strip, bemoaning any and all indignities with a slump of his bathrobe-clad shoulders. Tim’s quiet misery is upended with a blind date, where he develops chemistry with a chatty young lady in a restaurant where the customers see no light. It’s the absolute last place a man would find someone like the radiant Ms. McAdams, but this is a movie about time travel, so you have to let that one slide.

A time-travel favor for Harry is one of Tim’s only altruistic acts, though it results in erasing his date with McAdams’ Mary from existence. This doesn’t stop him from pursuing her once again using all the knowledge gained from that date, even if Mary now does not recognize this stranger. McAdams, it doesn’t need to be said, is vibrant: she plays Mary as a girl who honestly has no idea how beautiful she is, one who seems surprised that any man would approach her despite her obvious luminescence. Mary isn’t seduced by Tim’s charm or looks as much as by his persistence: little does she know that he’s actively violating her in order to win her trust.

The movie presents it as an afterthought that Tim never tells anyone, not even Mary, about his unique skill. Instead, he constructs a relationship with her built on one central lie that keeps him from ever making a mistake, from ever placing her in a negative situation, turning her into an object waiting to be pleased. When Tim takes Mary to bed, there’s a vague disappointment at the end of their lovemaking, so Tim excuses himself to travel back in time and try it again. At the end of the night, the space-time physics aren’t enough to distract you from the question of whether Mary has given her consent to sex three times over the course of one night in three separate timelines.

The morality of what Tim is doing is never broached by the subject matter, which is content to set up mild comedic obstacles that can be hurdled with great ease. Tim and Mary hook up in the film’s first forty minutes (movie over, said some of the smarter cookies in the NYFF screening who quickly departed), and Tim has no more dragons to slay until years later when he realizes maybe he should share this power to make another’s life better. You wonder if this ever occurred to his father, who claims he spent all the added time reading books. Nighy’s performance, as the world’s most carefree dad, mostly involves him pacing around the room, as if primed for a jazz triangle rehearsal. There’s never once the idea that, within the deep love between Tim and his father, they’ve disagreed about anything. Even when he brings Tim distressing third act news about their power that probably should have been shared earlier, Tim doesn’t respond with anger.

And why would he? He’s attached to the hip to the queen of romantic comedies. McAdams eventually plays a secondary role as the focus tightens on Tim and his pop, and the fantasy of a romantic relationship shifts into the practicality of domestic life. It feels like a marginalization of McAdams skill and presence as much as an example of the film’s implicit notion that all women are meant to be kept in the dark or protected and saved, like Tim’s effervescent younger sister in an otherwise charming performance by Lydia Wilson. “About Time,” inadvertently, reveals itself to be About Men, and how they devise lies in order to create the illusion that all women supposedly want to see. Neil LaBute would have a field day with this material, but he also wouldn’t have had the innate cruelty to cast someone as divine as Ms. McAdams to play such a fool. [D]

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  • Kyle | March 31, 2014 1:45 AMReply

    That is not at all what this movie is about and if you honestly think that it's that dull on message, then you're kidding yourself as a critic. Poor show, Gabe. I feel extremely sorry for you that you can't see the sheet excellence in this film. This is a great movie and nothing at all like Gabe has so mistakenly described. This is a must see!

  • Jon | March 23, 2014 8:23 PMReply

    I feel sorry for Gabe Toro that he can't see the good in this movie. Tim would go back in time to make things better for Mary, not because he viewed her as an object but because he deeply cared for her and loved her. Somehow Gabe is trying to turn this into a sexist thing which never crossed my mind once before reading this review. If you can tell me for a fact you've never wanted to rewind 10 mins to erase something stupid you did or said, then I'd say you're lying. Just because this character has this ability and uses it doesn't make him sexist. Nor is he trying to build a relationship based on lies. If you've ever told your girlfriend "her butt didn't look big in those jeans", then you are just as much a liar.

  • Otha | February 20, 2014 12:31 AMReply

    Haven't yet seen the movie BUT I love what you write about it and will look forward to seeing it nonetheless. I too find Rachel McAdams to be radiant and the movie preview DO seem to suggest that the movie supports deceptive relationships and men doing and saying absolutely ANYTHING to get into a woman's pants. The fact that he repeatedly goes back in time to learn how to modify his behavior is definitely lying to her by omission. BUT still I'm looking forward to seeing it. THANKS for a great review!

  • Christian | February 17, 2014 4:22 PMReply

    Gabe Toro: If I had the ability to clench my fists in a dark room in order to travel back in time, I would travel back 10 minutes so I wouldn't have to read this awful review.

  • Willis | February 5, 2014 6:27 AMReply

    This review is probably one of the dumbest I've seen so far. While the film concentrates on the love romance between Domnhall gleeson and McAdams and things like enjoying everyday and every moment, the critic here focuses so much on woman's "vulnerability". You're harping on the wrong topic all together. Bad review.

  • David | March 15, 2014 11:48 PM

    I literally laughed out loud after I read your comment! What a toolbar this gabe person must be like in real life!

  • Carl von Maltitz | February 2, 2014 3:53 PMReply

    Thanks for this review - watching the film I had only a very blurry notion of why it made me feel slightly sick, even though it had its funny and touching moments. Now I know better.

  • Jinx X | April 7, 2014 3:18 AM

    You needed a random internet "movie critic" to explain it to you why (and if) you disliked a movie? You wasn't sure if you liked it, and now it's been explained to you that you haven't? Do you have any personality at all, or are you simply a puppet?

  • Santiago Draco | January 25, 2014 2:31 AMReply

    Wow, there's so much hate in the world. A good movie comes along that is, ultimately, about love and caring for one another, and the haters, like Mr. Jonathan there, have to spread their hate like a thick sheen of slime on an otherwise caring piece of work. Let's not mention the equally clueless Mr. Toro.

  • Jonathan L | January 8, 2014 8:50 PMReply

    I agree, this film did not have the best view on women. Just a few examples; They called Mary's friend a prostitute, just for being more open with her sexual desire. The character Harry said that Tim could f*ck his daughter because she's already f*cking everyone else, so it doesn't matter (She's practically a prostitute already). Charlotte wasn't meant to be a good character either, and her proposal to f*ck Tim was viewed as slutty.

    They are sort of saying, maybe not literary, that the only way to be a good women is to commit to one man. Madonna-wh*re complex all over. I'm not saying this was intentional, but can someone really say that it's totally untrue?

  • Cairo | January 5, 2014 3:52 PMReply

    Worst review ever, movie is great and yes, everybody thinks so... but you.

  • Adam | January 4, 2014 5:03 PMReply

    "At the end of the night, the space-time physics aren’t enough to distract you from the question of whether Mary has given her consent to sex three times over the course of one night in three separate timelines."

    Are you serious? Me and my fiance watched this movie, and not a single time was this ever a thought. I found this website through Metacritic, won't be coming back.

  • Cairo | January 5, 2014 3:54 PM

    Totally agree, won't come back either ;)

  • Johnny | January 1, 2014 9:21 PMReply

    The movie... it started off okay, but then it got too cute for its own good. Also, McAdams... WTF. She's 35 and she's playing opposite someone who looks 23. Horrible miscasting. They could have had any number of proper-age female actresses like Shailene Woodley or Brie Larson. Had to stop watching this movie in the middle because: preposterous. 1.5/5 in my book.

  • Norwegian Blue | November 13, 2013 10:37 PMReply

    I wonder, do critics ever consider that some film makers make movies for viewers, and not for critics? This movie is the best of the year, period. I'm genuinely sorry for Mr. Toro that he wasn't equipped to enjoy it. (Oh, and as for his specific criticisms, he clearly misunderstood so many aspects of the movie, it would be easy, but pointless, to address them ad seriatim.)

  • Dizl McAdams | November 12, 2013 2:12 PMReply

    What a sad life you lead!

  • Sophie | September 29, 2013 2:31 PMReply

    I thought this article was intelligent until it starting banging on about how the film is supposedly misogynistic. Why the hell does everything have to be about the representation of women? Just because Rachel McAdams wasn't the protagonist in this instance does not make the film anti-feminist. In fact, Tim TRIES to save his sister but doesn't in the end, so what does that say? That men are impotent and unsuccessful in what they try to achieve? No. "How they devise lies in order to create the illusion that all women" ALL women? Sorry, this is just one woman here. Generalisation flaw. Also, it's funny that you insult the men's performances even though they were extraordinary and compliment the women's? And why is McAdam's character a "fool"? Because she gets married, has children and does not prioritise her career above her family? I'm a feminist, but I don't get stupidly carried away. Don't read into it too much, just enjoy the film for what it is.

  • Tea Drinker | December 19, 2013 5:27 PM

    Wow, so so so very true and well said. I'm tired of wannabe elitists like this critic whining whenever a female is portrayed as rising to (in my opinion) the most respectable office possible, being a wife and a mother. Did you forget, sir, that the protagonist sacrificed the opportunity of sexual deviance with his old-school crush and instead committed himself for life to McAddams character? Hmm, real misogynistic eh. Now let's just be honest: this film promoted fatherhood, marital commitment, sexual fidelity, self-sacrifice, and to an extent large families. So sorry those things get on your nerves, I highly recommend trying all of them.

  • Alan B | September 24, 2013 5:09 PMReply

    F*ck, my dick is so sore again. I'm gonna go eat nachos.

  • Alan B | September 23, 2013 5:29 PMReply

    This ROMANTIC COMEDY is terrible because it isn't a Neil LaBute film and it wastes McAdams' "skill"? Terrific criticism, as always ...

  • Alan B | September 25, 2013 4:51 AM

    You don't have to thank me Charity for making you seem more intelligent than your real post.

  • Charity | September 25, 2013 4:49 AM

    Lol, lol, lol ... see how easy it is to take another person's name. LOL, LOL ...

  • Charity | September 24, 2013 5:20 PM

    LOL, Alan doth protest too much. Seems like Rebecca is on to something here.

  • Alan B | September 24, 2013 5:02 PM

    Actually, it strikes me as decidedly INconvenient that other people are that petty and stupid, and that you have the "la, la, la, I am not listening, IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO FIGURE THAT OUT, LA, LA, LA". In fact, I'll give you an EXAMPLE: on an article in which an actor from 'Veep' was said to have joined the new PTA film, the writer gave a long, boring, dull, needless response that he wasn't a huge fan of Veep. I commented that no one, in fact, cared whether the writer was a fan of the show. That comment was deleted and replaced by "Thanks for teaching me about Veep!" Yeah, so shit like that happens ALL THE TIME on this site. And you keep repeating the "other sites" line when the person who made that claim couldn't figure out that two different people (from TWO DIFFERENT COUNTRIES) were criticizing him on different sites. A simple IP search could have told him that fact but he, like yourself, prefers to live in self-delusion than do the SIMPLE BASIC DUE DILIGENCE. "Oh nooooooooooo, it's too HARDDDDDDDD to think critically. I'll prefer to use phrases as DOUCHEY as 'a convenient way' to mask the fact that I can't THINK FOR MYSELF." But, hey, you are going to continue to rationalize your own ineptitude and blame me for EVERYTHING, so - again - shame on me for thinking that you could do basic things for yourself. Also, I can't teach you everything but 1 + 1 = 2, just in case you'll need that equation in life.

  • REBECCA | September 24, 2013 11:24 AM

    "other people use my name." Convenient way to mask your drunken confessions here. I've heard this is your m.o. on other sites. A deep self-loathing with criticism. Sick. Get help.

  • Alan B | September 24, 2013 5:25 AM

    Shame on me, then. I should have known that half the people who disagree with me are actually too stupid to figure out something that simple (whilst the other half is too stupid to pose a contrary argument and revert to simply taking my username). Shame on me for thinking that someone like Rebecca could figure out basic concepts for herself. Shame ...

  • Alan B | September 24, 2013 5:23 AM

    That's because other people use my name, GENIUS!!!!!!!!!!

  • Rebecca | September 23, 2013 9:24 PM

    You can't explain anything to this moron. He spoke about eating his own dick in another thread, gross.

  • Gabe Toro | September 23, 2013 7:46 PM

    Not even remotely what is being said.

  • AH. | September 23, 2013 11:29 AMReply

    I don't see what people find to R. McAdams. She's cute with a great smile. But as an actress she's really boring.

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