The usual life affirming, romance-driven, slop from Richard Curtis, his formula long-since honed to a blunt edge. He’s indicated he was inspired backwards, so to speak, to make a movie involving time travel by his wish to express the sentiment that the best possible day would be a day like any other, with your loved ones, and lived as if it is your final day. You know, sodden mush filtered through a treacly upper-middle class dial-a-script. There isn’t an ounce of originality here, once he’s magpied the likes of Groundhog Day and The Time Traveller’s Wife. And not even very well! I’m not necessarily going to rip apart a picture’s internal logic if it satisfies on other levels (emotionally, for example – this doesn’t) but Curtis has devised a scenario that makes no sense.
So much so that a significant portion of the picture’s Wikipedia page is devoted to pointing out how Curtis abandons his slipshod rules of time travel just as soon as it’s convenient (or, as Mark Kermode witheringly comments, “whenever the prospect of an extra hug rears its head”). So, Dad (Bill Nighy) informs junior Tim (Domhall Gleeson) of his ability on turning 21. Arbitrarily, or as a result of abject sexism, only the men in the family are able to do this (except when Curtis wants to break his rule). They can’t go visit the future (unless one classes an alternate present one has no experience of but which one suddenly remembers entirely as the future, that is), and they can’t go back before they were born. That rule isn’t broken, but Tim seems curiously uninterested in travels prior to the point he is first informed of this (‘cos it’s About Love, see). That, and presumably Big wasn’t a big influence on Curtis (one presumes Tim’s adult consciousness would be trapped in his child self’s body, but there’s only one point in the finished move where we’d get to ask this and it’s played out as a hazy halcyon sunset).
Curtis, as noted, realised that if you go forward to a different future you need to remember that memories of the future you haven’t experienced (although you don’t lose the no longer existing ones), something the end of Back to the Future didn’t think about (unless Zemeckis and Gale were playing with multiple parallel Martys, but unfortunately the trilogy isn’t nearly that clever). But for similar reasons as Robert Zemeckis, this director-writer then chooses to completely ignore his rule when he needs to his protagonist to be surprised by something of which he should be fully aware. So too, the sudden inclusion of a rule that if you go back in time before your child is born the infinite variables (well, the number of different potential sperm) will result in a different child is as close as Curtis gets to embracing the Butterfly Effect. Which he promptly discards with no adverse consequences when he wants to seep schmaltz over the screen.
Of his various narrative nonsenses, the one that threw me the most was the mode of time travel itself. Simple and effective, one might think; Tim goes into a cupboard, or dark place, closes his eyes, grips his fists and thinks of a moment he wants to revisit. And lo, he is transported there in place of his other self currently there. When he’s finished, he returns to his dark space and comes back to the present. Except that… If he arrives in the past, in a cupboard, his earlier self would have to be in that cupboard waiting. Or wink out of whatever (possibly public) place he happened to be at the time. And, when Tim leaves again, what remains of his consciousness of the events in the mind of his self he engineered? Does Tim retain the awareness of his future self, or just go on as if nothing ever happened? I have no idea. Curtis is far too lazy to bother with any of this (he claims he followed his rules rigorously, so I can only assume he’s utterly shit at board games).
He’s tackled time travel before, of course, for motives both of broad comedy (Blackadder Back and Forth) and an attempt to touch on themes of personal validation and artistic merit (quite effectively, in Doctor Who’s Vincent and the Doctor; for all the glibness of the current (nu-) series, and the dire straits in which it currently languishes, the season he wrote for is easily its peak). Here, however, it’s a pointless device; he’d have been better off using an actual magic wand that causes less logical frictions (how about Adam Sandler’s crazy remote control?) Either that, or made the effort to fashion something, if not watertight, then sea-worthy. Harold Ramis managed it with Groundhog Day. That’s why it’s a classic (that and Bill Murray; Andie McDowell not so much). It uses its conceit genuinely inventively and to a variety of tonal ends from deceit, to slapstick, to kindness, and then wisdom (and then love).
If you’re invested in the characters and the general thrust, the shortcomings are more than likely forgivable. But, akin to Ned Ryerson being punched in the jaw, Curtis actively rejects the moral lessons of the picture he clearly venerates. Tim is actively unchanging and, worse, he gains his ultimate goal of love early on, through deceitful means that we’re supposed to find charming (I guess so, anyway). I expect the “plot” argument is that he sacrifices the initial perfect date to help his friend (in fairness, the “dinner in the dark” date is probably the best-sustained sequence in the movie), so he’s only getting what he deserves. But Tim resorts to stalker activity to attain his goal and behaves in a generally underhand, morally dubious, manner, from sabotaging Mary’s relationship to revisiting his first shag until he gets it right. Essentially, their marriage is built on a series of lies, ones about which Tim never comes clean.
Is Curtis’ message (a peculiar one from a man so obsessed with engineering fantasy romances) that none of these subterfuges are important; they just go to underpin a strong marriage? Curtis doesn’t have the Machiavellian quality to provide any edge to Tim and, because he isn’t required to grow or learn in any kind of concrete way, his actions come across as all the more unsettling and less justifiable. Perhaps this is a side effect of the director saving (what he hopes is) the real emotional core of the movie for the father-son relationship, but this side is entirely lacking too. Tim loves dad; what’s there to realise there? Other than that Curtis’ capacity for maudlin self-indulgence can reach new lows even by his standards. Tim’s realisation that he doesn’t need to relive any of his days because his life is so full is a wishy-washy lesson; there hasn’t been any dramatic meat or conflict to lead to such a point. Likewise, the instruction Dad gives him to try living everyday almost exactly the same “but this time noticing” is paid off by a couple of scenes where he smiles at a cashier. It’s utterly vapid.
As with all Curtis pictures this one revolves around his relentlessly upbeat, chocolate box idea of romantic love. I’m not expressly against this. I quite like Four Weddings and a Funeral, and The Tall Guy, and I generally find Hugh Grant’s stammering toff routine engaging and charming, despite my better instincts. Curtis doesn’t have a Hugh here to help him, however, so it falls to Gleeson, a good actor going through the motions of the fecklessly lovelorn. He isn’t quite up to the task, but it isn’t really his fault; you can hear the dialogue styled for a man with a greater flair for Received Pronunciation and a ready-and-willing floppy fringe. As Mary, Rachel McAdams goes the way of all female leads in Curtis vehicles, cast into shadow by the antics of her co-star. She has more presence than an Andie McDowell, but who doesn’t? And she was in Time Traveler’s Wife, so there’s some strictly limited inspiration going on (I’m surprised Curtis didn’t ask Anna Faris of Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel along for a scene). There’s also the usual coterie of eccentrics, female (Lydia Wilson is highly appealing as Kit Kat, the picture’s Charlotte Coleman character) and male (Tom Hollander as the misanthropic flatmate)
This wouldn’t be a Curtis joint without a ridiculously upbeat music montage or three. At least, I should think there are that many. As a director (this is his third) he’s utterly undisciplined, stretching the running time past the two-hour mark (mercifully, it’s still his shortest movie, but that’s a good half hour longer than it needs to be). And one wonders if lucky talisman Nighy (called on to spout lines about liking Nick Cave – Gleeson is stuck with Baz Luhrmann – and generally give off the air of someone thoroughly weary with repeating the same old performance ad infinitum) is such a blessing after all. Maybe he should go back to lovely, floppy-haired Hugh if he wants a decent hit. About Time has one saving grace, however (well, two, given that none of the actors deserve a hard time for suffering through Curtis’ reheated leftovers); it’s not The Boat that Rocked.