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 during our NYFF screening last month), 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 at 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]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 New York Film Festival.