Time travel is hereditary rather than a scientific invention in writer-director Richard Curtis’s About Time, a surprisingly thoughtful romantic comedy that shirks a great deal of reason and consequence in the name of love. As told to Tim Lake (Domnhall Gleeson, son of Brendan), the budding lawyer at the center of the film, by his aging father (Bill Nighy), the “butterfly effect” is null and void, but there are still some rules to time travel, such as being restricted to journeying backward through one’s own lifetime and being unable to travel forward. On the up side, little more than a dark room is required for transport, and Tim quickly grows adept at locating the closest enclosures around him at any given moment as he tests out his power on a lost New Year’s kiss and his unrequited summer love, Charlotte (Margot Robbie), bestie of his space-cadet sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson).
Though the future remains a mystery even with this ability, it certainly isn’t hard to predict where things go once Tim meets cute with Mary (Rachel McAdams) at a pitch-black bar in London. Thus begins a great romance, complete with a rainstorm-besieged wedding, kids, a familial alcohol-abuse panic, and the death of a loved one. Considering the inherent emotional embellishments that go along with these elements, it’s almost admirable how well Curtis keeps the emotional gooeyness modulated, though his visual vernacular remains strictly competent. Then again, this may only be because Curtis also happens to be the man behind the exceedingly saccharine Love Actually. Nevertheless, the laughs are big and consistent through the first three quarters (or so) of Tim and Mary’s story, and each member of the cast, including a scene-stealing Tom Hollander, fills out the characters beyond the mild eccentricities that Curtis supplies them with.
As in Love Actually, it’s the pacing that really makes this all work, and in that way, the title is totally apt. And in essence, Curtis is dusting around eloquent wisdom about both life and movies. Tim wants to edit out the awkward and painful parts of his life, but eventually comes to see them as essential and unavoidable, and his father also advises him to relive every day in order to take in life’s details and diffuse its tensions. It’s also crucial advice for any filmmaker: focus on the details, don’t skip or expedite the sad parts, and revisit films for inspiration. Indeed, Tim’s power ostensibly allows him to treat life like a narrative that he’s able to continuously rewind, reshape, and edit. This idea is limited by the sweetheart sway of Curtis’s script, but it still captures the zeal of being both an observer and stager of life, while also living it.
It’s a way of being that Curtis clearly can relate to, and the film openly toys with how a creative (pre)occupation can affect one’s personal life and family. (It’s telling that the film ends with the birth of Tim’s third child, and that About Time happens to be Curtis’s third feature to date.) Unfortunately, the writer-director softens and ultimately abandons this clever route of self-analysis toward the end, and takes up the cause of family values in extremely safe and bland terms. Tim’s privileged life is devoid of conflict, and even the darker shadings come off as easily manageable. His regrets are so ordinary and relatively minor that the importance of his power begins to lose all meaning, which, of course, is Curtis’s entire point, ending his film with a big, fat, sappy paean to life lived in the moment. About Time is unquestionably the filmmaker’s most fascinating and personal work to date, boasting a rare and unexpected comfort with finality, but you have to wonder: What’s so special about a time traveler with a squeaky clean past?