Silently weeping while watching one of the films of Richard Curtis doesn’t make you a sap, loser, or hopeless romantic; it makes you human. While the carbon copies of his overly sugary work (read: Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, et al.) are totally insulting to a normal person and should only be watched while drinking Mountain Dew spiked with Captain Morgan and eating a bag of Cheetos, real-deal rom-coms like Love Actually, or Four Weddings & a Funeral demand to move you to tears of feel-good joy. It’s not an option with these movies. You. Will. Cry. So, does Richard Curtis’s latest—About Time—accomplish the same moments of laugh-out-loud chortles coupled with involuntary sobs?
Of course the answer is yes, but I’m not really sure why, nor do I know what the movie is really about.
The supposed premise of About Time, is fairly conducive to amazing character- and plot conflicts: upon turning 21 years old, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to travel back in time along their own time-line. Tim is advised to utilize this power in a way that will make his life better and to not try and go for fortune and glory or do anything that will make him unhappy. He’s also casually told that it seems like they can’t actually change big events in history, so, not-to-worry, time paradoxes will be avoided. (Bummer for sci-fi fans!)
Tim’s big life goal and one which he tells us (in a voice over) is that he’ll use time-travel to find love. His first attempt is to woo the I’m-too-sexy-for-this-movie family friend, Charlotte (Margot Robbie). He asks her out at the end of the summer, at which point she tells him he waited too long, so he travels back in time and attempts to ask her out earlier, only to have her say “maybe at the end of the summer.” Here, you might think the movie is telling us that Charlotte is a time-traveler too, or that certain things are destined to happen(or not happen) no matter how much the time-line is altered, but in tonal deliverance, Charlotte’s rejection of Tim is just presented as a bummer.
But that’s okay, because Tim soon meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) while chatting in a super-hip restaurant which is completely in the dark. It’s a blind date! Cute! It has nothing to do with time travel! Time travel is not mentioned for a long time! What is happening? Well, Rachel McAdams is really gorgeous and Tim is really funny and you feel like you’re watching a Richard Curtis movie again, which is good, except, soon Tim goes back in time to save a disastrous opening night of a play written by someone he barely likes. The result of doing this is he never meets Mary, and in subsequent attempts to talk to her, he comes across awkward and creepy, making a normal viewer think that Tim has ruined that one moment where he could have met the girl of his dreams and that some kind of “destiny isn’t real” theme is being played out.
Only that’s not the case, because he manages to get Mary back in a different context in like 15 minutes. Yes, he uses time-travel, and yes, it’s a little hollow and slightly creepy. And then the movie goes forward with its awesome plot. Ready for it? Here it is: Mary and Tim raise a family with almost zero conflict!
It may be formulaic, but it’s always effective when a rom-com has the lovers break-up at some point, only to satisfactorily get back together. This is why we love Jon Cusack holding a boombox over his head in Say Anything. It’s also why Hugh Grant firing Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) in Love Actually totally works; it allows them to cutely get back together at the end of the movie, secretly and then not-so-secretly kissing at a local Christmas pageant. Remember how great that was? Sadly, About Time has none of this tension, because Mary and Tim are totally happy together and even when it rains on their wedding day (Alanis Morrissette music did not play!) they are totally fine with it and they laugh a lot. Bill Nighy even uses time travel to make the best possible toast in the world. It’s here where the time travel conceit seems less of a plot point, and more of a gag or an editing tool for Richard Curtis. Which sucks, because with its lack of consequences, it becomes sort of predictable.
The only really dire character conflict in the film relates to Tim’s sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) who we’re told is his favorite person in the world and who we’re supposed to understand has a drinking problem and sleeps around with terrible men. The problem is, we don’t see much of this, so when Kit Kat doesn’t show up to a certain party because she’s been in a drunk-driving car accident, the movie switches tones again in a way that’s not really all that sad or effective, but simply, weird. Tim attempts to undo the complications of Kit Kat’s life by taking her back to a shitty party when she supposedly began making bad decisions. BUT, that isn’t quite right either, because then that messes up Tim’s life, so he goes back again, and lets Kit Kat get in the car accident, but this time, decides to just hope for her to recover and talk her out of her boozy self-destructive ways. For about 10 minutes, the movie got a little dark and could have been called We Need to Talk About Kit Kat. And then everything’s fine again. Time travel causes no problems, and it also doesn’t fix anything. Which is ultimately a problem in a movie about time travel.
Yes, there’s a touching scene towards the end where Tim is able to visit his father in a particular pivotal moment. It’s sweet and well done and you’d have to be a monster to not be moved. But, I kept feeling like About Time was a confused first draft. Is this about fathers and sons? Failed relationships? Inevitable character flaws? Wait? Is this movie actually about time travel? Sadly, I think even the biggest rom-com enthusiast will find themselves shaking their head, and wishing they knew what had happened. Tim tells the audience exactly what the message of the movie is at the end: be happy having and ordinary life. Which is nice, but a little forced.
Because in a movie like this, being told what to feel isn’t the same of letting us actually feel it.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.