The premise of “About Time” – that an awkward young man can travel back to certain moments in his life and get a redo – sets up expectations of repeated gaffes and goof-ups that require the time zap patch. In the middle of it all, there would be ridiculous screw-ups that threaten the young hero’s well-crafted happiness – and demand a huge suspension of disbelief.
Thankfully, Richard Curtis is better than that. The director/writer has crafted clever romantic comedies that soar above their down-to-earth settings. “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Love, Actually” all have in common two things: Hugh Grant and faith in true love. People just have to know how to recognize it.
“About Time,” sans Grant, picks up thematically where “Love, Actually” leaves off. In Curtis’ 2003 holiday ensemble piece, love and romance came in very mixed bags. Yes, Colin Firth was wonderful courting his unexpected sweetheart in garbled Portuguese, and Grant, by then aging out of floppy-haired youth, still got the girl. But other characters had more bittersweet endings, one with empty arms, another with dreams of what might have been, and two more moving forward to an unknown future.
In his latest, and possibly he says his last, film, Curtis takes his ideas of love and happiness further past the first blush of romance. Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and a former Weasley brother in the Harry Potter films, plays Tim Lake, part of a happy family of British eccentrics. His Mum is a lovely woman whose fashion icon is the queen (Wellington boots, sensible skirts); his sister is a flaky free spirit; there’s a potty-mouthed but lovable uncle around; and his dad, played with touching sincerity by a sly Bill Nighy, is a professor who retired at 50 and has a deep secret.
The secret – that men in the family have the power to time travel within their own lives (no stopping Hitler or changing history) – comes out in the film’s first few minutes, right after the annual dreaded New Year’s Eve party. Tim, thinking the information a joke, takes the power for a test-drive to fix an embarrassing moment at the party. Shortly afterward, he heads off to a life in law in London.
Although Tim told his dad he expected to use time travel to help his love life, at first there is no love life. Then he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams, who had the title role in “The Time Traveler’s Wife”). No sooner is she met than she’s lost, when Tim has to “redo” the night to save a friend from disaster.
How he finds her again is fun, and it has little to do with the time-space continuum. His effort is more about patience and persistence, and it pays off.
The two young lovers, while unequal in physical attractiveness, are a perfect pair of goofy cut-ups, and Tim and Mary are together for the duration.
That is how Curtis turns his bit of fluff into heartier stuff, a “Groundhog Day” for this millennium. Once Tim and Mary are set, the film fast-forwards events, smoothing out the odd wrinkle with time fixes before showing that even people with small superpowers can’t fix every problem, at least not without consequences.
“About Time” is about the time that everyone has, and how they choose to spend it. Nighy’s character says that happiness is not found in money or possessions, and Curtis comes to the same conclusion. Heading into our national holiday for giving thanks, it’s nice to be reminded.
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
Director: Richard Curtis
Running time: 124 minutes
Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
The Lowdown: A young man who can travel in time finds true love is more about staying in the moment.