As a genre, romantic comedies are known for their predictability. The marriage plot even predates movies. About Time, the latest romantic comedy from Richard Curtis, director of Love Actually, uses an unlikely premise to highlight the unpredictability of life in a delightful way.
About Time is the story of Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family can travel back in time. Tim initially wants nothing more than to find a girl, but after he falls for Mary (Rachel McAdams), he faces more complicated life challenges in the form of fatherhood, his own father's death, and struggling to help his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) pull out of a downward spiral. As he comes to terms with hardship and learns the limitations of his unusual gift, Tim's story reflects on the joys and complications of life itself.
My favorite part of the film was the relationships between the characters. It's not uncommon for friends and family members to be quirky and beloved characters, but in About Time the relationships themselves are the focal point of the story. Tim's relationship with his father, rather than the pursuit of his dream girl, is the grounding narrative of the film. Dad provides both the wisdom that guides the story and plenty of humor. Although the fact that he used his ability to travel in time to read everything—twice--endeared him to me immediately, his ping pong matches with Tim are one of the more delightful parts of the movie. Similarly, Tim's relationship for his sister Kit Kat in some ways (and not creepy ones) works as a foil to his relationship with Mary. Kit Kat is one of his favorite people and her quirky, unpredictable, self-destructive nature avoids the convention of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and instead brings the chaotic presence the plot needs. Mum (Lindsay Duncan) and Uncle D (Richard Cordery) similarly offer offbeat characters but in a developed way that lends complexity to the family life. By developing the characters beyond their most obvious traits, About Time creates a story rich with texture and complexity so that the shift from storyline to storyline feels natural and compelling. To bring these beautiful relationships to life, the cast delivers wonderful performances. Gleeson and McAdams have strong chemistry with each other and bring so much charm to the story that even in the darker moments it still feels like a romantic comedy.
I found that often what I thought would happen didn't happen. Several times, Tim ended up in situations that seemed like good candidates for time travel, but then life would intrude with a larger obstacle, distracting from the minor problem. In other situations, when other romantic comedies would take the more dramatic option, the characters made more realistic decisions, keeping the story's focus on the life of a family, rather than the genre hijinks that most rom-coms are occupied with.
What keeps About Time from being pedantic or cheesy is its light touch and sense of humor. Instead of dwelling on major plot points and hammering away at its themes there, the story instead revels in small pleasures and the love between characters. In this way, despite Tim's fantastic power, About Time feels true to life. The artistic style of the film, full of light, color, and intimate settings also highlights this theme.
Although the time travel narrative makes the plot interesting, it does also open up the major weaknesses of the film. As my movie buddy pointed out, it seems pretty arbitrary that only the men in the family can travel in time, offering them more power over their own lives than the women, most notably Kit Kat. Similarly, Tim's use of time travel to woo Mary could come off as manipulative and stalkery. Fortunately, the rest of the film is so joyously good that these issues feel like minor grievances.
For its charm, developed characters, and grounded sense of humor, I rate About Time 4/5 stars. About Time was written and directed by Richard Curtis. It runs 123 minutes and is rated R for language and some sexual content.