Those who know me best know that I usually cannot tolerate romance movies. Sure, there are exceptions like “When Harry Met Sally” and “(500) Days of Summer,” but I typically find most of them to be unforgivably manipulative, inherently cheesy and full of cringe inducing dialogue. As a genre, I typically avoid it whenever possible, so my enthusiasm for “About Time” was not all that great. But then I noticed a familiar name on the movie’s poster, Richard Curtis. This is the same man who wrote the screenplay for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” one of the few romance movies that actually had me on the edge of my seat, and who also wrote and directed “Love Actually” which has become my family’s favorite film to watch every Christmas season. That suddenly piqued my interest in seeing this one.
“About Time” on the surface looks like the kind of romantic comedy that involves a man and woman getting together, falling in love and then breaking up only to become a couple again by the movie’s end. But the fact is that its trailer doesn’t do the movie any justice. The story ends up becoming more than the usual romance, and it ended up go in directions I didn’t expect it to. Curtis is obviously aware of the trappings that are inherent in this genre, and he succeeds in avoiding them and gives yet another film that is genuinely moving and full of characters that are relatable and refreshingly down to earth.
The main character of this romantic tale is Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), a 21 year old who is desperate to have a girlfriend in this lifetime. His attempts a getting a kiss on New Year’s Eve don’t work out as planned and it only adds to his self-deprecating attitude which he has clearly spent years perfecting. He can’t even capture the heart of his sister’s best friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie) who is quite the looker.
Before he heads off to London to become a lawyer, Tim’s dad (played by Bill Nighy) lets his son in on a little secret: the men in his family have the power to travel in time. All Tim has to do is go over inside a closet, clench his fists tightly and think about a place he wants to go to, and suddenly he’s there. He immediately tests this time travel power out and goes back to New Year’s Eve to get that kiss he missed out on, and from there he uses it to benefit himself and those close to him whenever possible (be he’s usually out to benefit himself mostly).
Now on the surface this seems like a silly plot for a movie, and the Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” quickly came to mind as I was watching “About Time,” but Curtis has not given us the typical time travel here. In fact, the time travel aspect gets pushed more and more into the background as the movie aims to focus on not one but two love stories.
Tim ends up meeting an American woman at a blind dating restaurant where everyone is served food in the dark, and through their conversations they form a connection that becomes unbreakable. Once he gets outside and back into the light, he discovers that the person he spoke with is the beautiful but insecure Mary (Rachel McAdams) and their moment on that quiet London street had me rooting for them to make this relationship work.
The other love story in “About Time” is between Tim and his dad, and I found it to be the most moving part of this movie. At first it looks like they have the usual father-son relationship where the father gives him life advice and the son takes it with a grain of salt, but their relationship feels a lot more real than those I have seen in recent movies. Once Tim learns that his dad is headed for a certain fate he can’t escape from, their relationship becomes even deeper and you dread the moment these two people will have their last ever conversation.
Are there some logistic problems with the time travel aspect of this movie? Probably, but I really didn’t care. It serves an interesting plot device as Tim accidentally erases his initial encounter with Mary after helping a friend and ends up having to make her fall in love with him all over again. It’s also amusing to watch Tim try to improve on certain moments in his life with Mary like when they have sex or when he proposes marriage. Heck, we’d all love to have the power to undo the more embarrassing moments in our lives, and I got a huge kick out of Tim undoing his.
But the time travel device really serves to illuminate one of the movie’s main themes which is to not be overly concerned with the past or the future, but to stay in the present and to take pleasure in every moment. This is what I have to love about Curtis’ movies, how he takes the most mundane, ordinary things and turns them into a thing of beauty. They are the things in life that we take for granted and don’t always take the time to appreciate. By the movie’s end, Curtis makes us realize this, and we come out of “About Time” with an upbeat look on life that we don’t always have.
The other thing I’ve come to love about Curtis is how populates his films with multi-dimensional characters who we can relate to. The thing that drives me nuts about a lot of movies, especially ones from the romantic genre, is how they give us characters that are doing so much better than the rest of us, and it gets to where we just believe that all these problems with love only happen to successful white people. Curtis, however, continues to give us the most memorable characters we could ever hope to meet in our lifetime.
It also helps that Curtis has quite the cast to work with. Domhnall Gleeson, whom you might remember as Bill Weasley in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” is terrific in the way he radiates that Hugh Grant awkwardness as his character goes from being unlucky in love to being very lucky in life. As for Rachel McAdams, I’m trying to remember the last time I found her to be so radiant in a movie. McAdams does some of her best work here as Mary, and every time she smiles it just fills up your heart with joy. There’s also some nice performances from Lydia Wilson as Tim’s wayward sister Kit Kat (yup, that’s her name), Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s mom, and the late Richard Griffiths has a wonderfully memorable moment as an actor who doesn’t need help memorizing his lines and will bluntly let you know that.
But the best performance in all of “About Time” is Bill Nighy’s who portrays Tim’s dad (we never do learn the character’s real name). It’s the simplicity of his performance that really gets to you as he never overplays or underplays the character. He never tries to go for that “Oscar moment” which would have the Academy going crazy over his performance for all the wrong reasons. Nighy doesn’t give us an extraordinary man or a boring man. Instead, he just gives us a man and a dad who is no different from the one we’ve grown up with, and he makes it so that when we watch him, we can’t help but thing of our own dad.
Seriously, “About Time” moved me to tears. The only other movie this year that I’ve cried after seeing was Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder,” but that’s mainly because he just had to use Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” which remains the saddest piece of music I have ever heard. With this film, Curtis reminds you of how the simple pleasures in life can often be the greatest and of how you need pain sometimes in order to better appreciate happiness. There are a lot of movies out there that try and make you see this, but few filmmakers these days can make us appreciate that as much as Curtis does.
It’s a bummer to hear Curtis say that “About Time” will be his last film as a director. He’s not leaving the movie business, but he is going to spend more time on the charities he works for. Still, it’s hard to think of any director (other than Mike Newell) who can better convey Curtis’ views on life as well as Curtis. Here’s hoping that he changes his mind at some point in the near future.