You’re at a party where someone says something startling. You, poor you, are briefly immobilized, and you don’t think of the perfect riposte until a bit later, when the moment has passed into eternity. The French call that l’esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit — the brilliant comeback that came to you as you walked downstairs in defeat. Turning frustration into fulfillment is all in the timing. It’s all about time.
Writer-director Richard Curtis had the notion that our lives and loves could be so much more satisfying if we all had a Take 2. Go back in time, up the staircase and into the party, with the ideal words of wit or consolation, a quick kiss, a little adjustment that fixes everything and makes Rachel McAdams your bride for life. Curtis, the unreconstructed sentimentalist who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually, turns this trope — a sort of Groundhog Day for lovers — into About Time, a movie so mulishly agreeable, so brazenly soppy that, even as it charms, it challenges the glucose tolerance of all who see it.
When he turns 21, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) has the sci-fi equivalent of a birds-and-bees chat with his sweetly eccentric father (Bill Nighy). Dad’s secret: all the men in the family are able to travel in time. Tim just needs to step into a closet, Narnia-style, clench his fists and, presto, he’s where he wants to be. Mind you, the women in the family neither share this gift nor know that it exists. And Tim can travel only to places he’s been before, to right little wrongs. “You can’t kill Hitler,” Dad says, “or shag Helen of Troy. Unfortunately.”
What about shagging Hitler? About Time is not that kind of movie. Other writers of modern comedy might push the premise to grand or satirical lengths. Not Curtis; he dwells purely in domestic fantasy, and in the airier, fluffier cinema past, when rom-coms were romantic comedies, and the idea of the One True Love was the rainbow that illuminated each classic Hollywood film. Curtis is so anachronistically soft-centered, he nearly qualifies as a counterrevolutionary. Your attraction to About Time depends wholly on whether your feelings live Back Then too — or as far back as Love, Actually. This one is Love, Repeatedly.
(MORE: Richard Corliss’s Review of Four Weddings and a Funeral)
Even before he realizes he has the gift, Tim’s life is almost preposterously idyllic. His mother (Lindsay Duncan) is flinty and doting, his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) a bundle of affectionate energy, his Uncle D (Richard Cordery) an antique of the empire who’s gone so endearingly vague that if he were to time-travel, he might get stranded in the past or trapped in a wardrobe. The family is well-off but seems to have no vocation except for hugging one another. As David James writes in a cleverly vitriolic takedown of the film, “Almost as soon as the opening credits roll, an incredible stink of privilege billows from the screen. Tim and his family [live] in a mansion perched on top of a Cornish cliff complete [with] a breathtaking view of the ocean. To put a cherry on top of this, they appear to have a f—ing private beach.”
You needn’t share James’ splenetic socialist view of Tim (“this vile, consuming, wibblingly bourgeois sub–Hugh Granty creature”) to wonder why the young man who has everything needs another gift. But placing Tim and his brood in genial comfort may be Curtis’ indication to audiences that this is a fairy tale, a parable about the capturing of missed opportunities. He posits Tim as a George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in Frank Capra‘s It’s a Wonderful Life, but with discomfort, not financial and emotional tragedy, nipping at his heels. If reality rarely intrudes in About Time, it’s because Curtis recognizes that every story of unsullied love — including Tim’s for pretty Mary (McAdams) — is a fantasy from which the dreamer never wants to wake.
Tim tries out his time-travel gift with modesty and generosity. He turns a perfunctory New Year’s Eve handshake with a lonesome girl into a passionate midnight kiss. In London as a young lawyer, he shares rooms with a grouchy dramatist (Tom Hollander), whose first play he transforms into a hit by prompting the actor whose forgotten speech ruined the opening-night performance. (This engaging vignette reunites those wonderful actors Richard E. Grant and the late Richard Griffiths a quarter-century after they starred in the immortal Withnall & I.)
(MORE: Richard Schickel’s Review of Withnall & I)
McAdams’ Mary hardly needs a magic wand to propel her into Tim’s arms. The first night he visits her flat, she announces, “I’m going to go into the bedroom and put on my new pajamas, and in a minute you can come in and take them off.” But then McAdams has had plenty of practice playing a time traveler’s significant other: as Eric Bana’s inamorata in The Time Traveler’s Wife and Owen Wilson’s fiancée in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. The simple flashing of her broad, canny smile, which applies a cute question mark to every statement she or anyone else utters, pretty much justifies Mary as Tim’s lifelong love. She also fills Curtis’ quota of giving a North American actress the leading female role in his very English movies, after Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings, Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Laura Linney in Love, Actually.
The movie is filled with appealing and attractive players. Nighy is always a delight, whether he is a beguiling inebriate as Davy Jones in two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the loopy rock star in Love, Actually; here he plays the quirkiest, most loving dad in movie history. Margot Robbie is a treat as the intimidatingly gorgeous blonde who briefly seizes Tim’s attention. Holding the wisps of plot and mood together is Gleeson, who played Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter films and impressed as the hapless idealist Levin in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. He fills Tim — a Candide in Candyland — with that most elusive quality: innocence.
(MORE: Richard Corliss’s Review of Anna Karenina)
At two hours plus, this surfeit of good feeling can wear thin, as if carolers stood outside your house on Christmas Eve and never stopped singing. And in case you somehow missed the movie’s point — “We’re all traveling through time together, every day of our lives; all we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride” — Curtis underscores his theme with a half-dozen love songs. Mike Scott’s “How Long Will I Love You?” snakes through the film; “I Will Always Love You,” “When I Fall in Love” and “Where or When” also dot the soundtrack. (What? No Air Supply ballads?)
The songs are plangent and irony-free, and so is the movie. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who loves About Time; and yes, I mean you, Mary Corliss. I too responded to this banquet of niceness, when not adhering to my professional skepticism. But as I left the movie theater, I had my own little l’esprit de l’escalier. The film left me feeling simultaneously amused and used. Could Richard Curtis go back in time and make a slightly less strenuously adorable movie?