“About Time” is about as English as it gets, and it probably won’t be what you expect. Rising Irish star Domhnall Gleeson (“Never Let Me Go,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “Anna Karenina”) plays Tim, a young English lawyer who’s told by his father (Bill Nighy) that men in their family have the power to travel back in time, but only within their own lives. Nighy dissects his expository dialogue slowly and carefully, clearly expecting his listener’s - both Tim’s and the audience’s - disbelief.
As his dad tells him, this means that although he can’t go back in time and kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, he does have the chance for do-overs at a moment’s notice. Don’t expect “Groundhog Day” or even “Click.” Where Bill Murray’s character in the classic “Groundhog Day” remorselessly exploited his endless second chances for consequence-free self-gratification, Tim doesn’t try to seduce every attractive girl he encounters, or even win the lottery. In fact his supernatural power disappears from the story for surprisingly long stretches.
True, Tim does use his gift to help win the heart of charming American Mary (Rachel McAdams), but that’s not the main thrust of this alternately funny and bittersweet movie. “About Time” is ultimately a love story between a father and a son, and there are times this movie will just about break your heart between laughs.
As with Woody Allen’s marvelous “Midnight in Paris,” time travel is depicted here without special effects, elaborate or otherwise. Curtis is concerned less with the visual trappings than in the repercussions of changing the past. And there are rules here. Pay attention. They’re slightly confusing but they’re important.
As the ads are quick to tell us, writer/director Richard Curtis also wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and wrote and directed “Love Actually.” Like those earlier movies, “About Time” is riddled with colorful supporting characters and quirky humor. And like those earlier movies, the plot often threatens to get away from him. That it doesn’t is a testament to the undeniable gifts of the writer. Curtis has a gift for the ramshackle. His screenplays are sprawling, casual English gardens, in contrast to the more formal and manicured French. He also gets away with the device of voice-over narration, usually a bugaboo with critics, this one included, who tend to think it inherently uncinematic. It works here, and provides transitions that would otherwise have been tricky.
Curtis likes his characters eccentric (early on we join Tim’s family for an outdoor viewing of “High Plains Drifter” - in the rain), and in fact in his movies it’s the straight-laced ones in these movies who are likely to come off a little off. Rachel McAdams’ Mary is a quirky heroine, but you barely notice amidst the bumper crop of genuine oddballs Curtis has surrounded her with here. She’s luminous, no argument, but she does play second fiddle. There’s no denying Gleeson’s brains as an actor, or his deft comic timing, and his scenes with the always wonderful Nighy are the movie’s best moments. This is more a love story about a father and a son than it is about a boy and a girl. That isn’t a bad thing, but it makes a mistake to sell the movie as a romantic comedy with a supernatural twist.
One is tempted to rail against the state of current movie trailers - which either show too much or completely misrepresent the movie. The problem here is that the trailers emphasize Miss McAdams, probably because she’s the most-recognizable of the cast to American audiences. Audiences don’t go to see movies for their stars anymore, and while the romance between Tim and Mary is delightful, it’s not the spine of the story.
Perhaps because early on “About Time” makes it clear that we don’t quite know what to expect, there is a periodic suspenseful foreboding that something really terrible is going to happen, and viewers may be a bit more on edge than is absolutely necessary. Science fiction fans will be hard-pressed to criticize the treatment of time travel here, but we needn’t worry that Tim will emerge from a trip to the past to find Jack the Ripper’s running Parliament. You might need a tissue, however. There are some touching, and even some heart-rending moments, but remember, it wasn’t called “Four Weddings and a Bar Mitzvah.”
As a director Curtis hasn’t necessarily established himself as an auteur yet, although “About Time” is well-crafted and benefits from fine location shooting in both London and Cornwall. As a writer, though, he’s certainly made himself indispensable in a marketplace saturated with franchises, sequels, remakes, reboots, reimaginings and four quadrant tentpoles. This a sweet, thoughtful, even thought-provoking movie about the human condition, and interestingly, for a movie with a fair amount of rainy English weather, it’s remarkably sunny.