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About Time

November 1, 2013
About Time

I admit to being a big fan of Love Actually, and so I was cautiously looking forward to another romantic comedy by writer/director Richard Curtis. But when I heard what it was about, that made me nervous. And, indeed, About Time is a textbook case of the way time travel is delicate and dangerous, forming strange loops back on itself, and that using time travel as the premise for your story can end up undoing exactly the point you’d meant it to make.

The central conceit is that Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) can travel in time, to a limited extent. Shortly after he turns 21, his father (Bill Nighy) sits him down and explains that all the men in the family have been able to revisit their own history. But it only goes backwards, except when going back forward to the time Tim just went back from, which he doesn’t always, and it’s all kinda messy, which I admit is Not Really The Point here, but still feels jarring and messy that there aren’t well-defined rules about how this central conceit of the whole film works. The upshot is an uneven blend of Slaughterhouse Five, but with control by the traveller, and Groundhog Day, but not restricted to a single day.

So Tim starts by going back and kissing a girl he’d previously just awkwardly shaken hands with on New Year’s. He then tries to use his ability to make a pass at a young woman who stays the summer at his family’s Cornish villa, but after a couple tries he gives up. And then he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), and they fall in love, and he puts his talents to use correcting his various bungles.

Setting aside the creepy stalker factor — and there is indeed a scene where it’s kind of amazing that Mary and her friend don’t scream for the police on Tim — the thing that brings the premise crashing down is the premise itself. Time travel is a delicate thing, and Curtis blithely blunders his way through it much as Tim does through his life, maintaining no sense of consistency in the world he builds where it would conflict with the facile, syrupy schmaltz he’s pushing.

Tim gives a few halfhearted tries to catch a young woman’s interest, and then gives up, concluding that it’s impossible to make someone fall in love with you. But then he does exactly that by re-editing his actions later; his later actions undercut the earlier “lesson”. He seems to use his talent sparingly, except there are lines indicating that he’s been advancing his record as a lawyer by using them to win all his cases; evidently justice is less important than his career, which even so doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere.

The biggest hook is a certain natural “limit” to his abilities: after a certain point any attempt to change things before that point will cause seemingly unacceptable destructive consequences. The whole conclusion hinges on the idea that even a visit would be forbidden. And yet in the very first example where it comes up, Tim is able to repair the breach. The story’s own example shows that all is not lost. And besides, if it’s so terrible, why didn’t Tim’s dad call him up and give a warning before the fact rather than after?

Time travel is a powerful storytelling tool, but it must be used carefully. It has subtle and far-reaching effects that resonate across the entire story, and small changes can have large, unexpected effects that a storyteller must be prepared to compensate for. Richard Curtis is not a bad storyteller, either as a writer or as a director, but he is clearly not prepared to handle time travel in his stories, and as a result About Time only “works”, to whatever extent it does, if you’re willing to overlook the glaring inconsistencies in order to get at the cheap sentimentality underneath.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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