Science fiction fans, along with anyone who is especially intrigued by the time travel premise, should temper certain expectations and, instead, focus on About Time's endearing character moments.
In About Time awkward and reluctant 21 year-old, Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) gets life-changing news when his father (Bill Nighy) reveals that then men in their family have the ability to travel back between the present and past (but not the future). Whereas dear old Dad has used the gift in the pursuit of knowledge, by reading every book worth reading, Tim is quick to decide that his time-hopping story will be about finding true love.
After moving from his family’s seaside estate to big city London, it isn’t long before Tim finds his soul mate Mary (Rachel McAdams) in a chance dinner meeting. However, when he travels back in time to help save his playwright roommate from a career-ending show, Tim learns that, due to his time-meddling, the encounter with Mary no longer occurred – as every change he makes in the past can have minor (and sometimes major) consequences for the future. Armed with this knowledge, Tim sets out to find Mary (again) for the start of a life-long journey of love, loss, and living each day to the fullest (sometimes more than once).
About Time was written and directed by Love Actually helmer Richard Curtis, who is no stranger to time-traveling protagonists, given that he penned the fan-favorite Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor." Unlike Doctor Who, About Time is free of extraterrestrial threats and mind-bending paradoxes, but that doesn't mean Curtis falls short in offering a compelling time-travel story mixed with an evocative and moving character drama. Science fiction fans will find some fun twists on traditional time-travel tropes (along with a lot of logic holes); but, while the time travel aspect is essential to the plot (as well as many of the jokes), About Time is first and foremost a tale about love and family.
The About Time marketing has focused heavily on Tim's pursuit of Mary but the larger storyline is significantly broader than the trailers suggest - as the Tim/Mary romance is actually established relatively early. Thankfully, the plot covers a lot more ground than a simple rom-com, as Tim uses his ability to help a troubled sister, raise children, improve his career, and (most importantly) face losses outside of his time-altering control. Curtis ensures that Tim explores the limitations and consequences of his power in a wide variety of scenes and unique situations but a few of the setups will be familiar to filmgoers who frequent indie family dramas. Nevertheless, the time-travel backdrop adds a layer of complexity that allows About Time to break out of any over-used tropes and present fresh insights - especially during interactions between Tim and his father.
Performances are strong across the board but the film's leading man Domhnall Gleeson (best known for his portrayal of Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) is a standout as the time-traveling Tim. Not only does Gleeson effortlessly present his character's growing confidence throughout the story, from a clumsy kid to a self-assured adult, watching Gleeson revisit key scenes over and over again (varying Tim's reactions each time around) is exceptionally entertaining. Yet, Curtis wasn't content to just pen a straightforward story about a man that can travel through time, and Gleeson is up to the task of ensuring that Tim is, first and foremost, a relatable protagonist charged with an immense gift (and subsequently responsibility). As a result, in addition to time-hopping hijinks, the actor sells a number of challenging and sentimental scenes that ground the film in uplifting (as well as heart-wrenching) drama.
The onscreen chemistry between Tim and Mary is also strong and authentic - making it easy to connect with the pair in times of joy and struggle without resorting to sappy rom-com melodrama. McAdams gets to dabble in a much more quirky and down-to-earth character than many of her prior romance genre roles - since Mary is not a glamorous girl in pursuit of a Prince Charming. Much like Tim, she's a fully realized dreamer with interesting eccentricities, which makes her a believable and captivating partner in love (instead of simply a coveted dream girl).
As mentioned, while Tim's search for true love is a central (and enjoyable) feature of About Time, the relationship between the film's time-traveling father and son pair is equally important and affecting. Unsurprisingly, Nighy is likable and charming as Tim's dad - unabashedly throwing himself into the role and presenting the senior Lake as a brilliant and enthusiastic person who has lived (and relived) his days to the fullest. The central cast is rounded-out with an equally competent set of performances from Lindsay Duncan and Lydia Wilson as Tim's mother and sister, respectively. Both characters are primarily relegated to supporting the father and son arc or exploring aspects of the time-travel plot device but Mrs. Lake and Kit Kat are still rounded - even if their screen time is slightly limited.
Sadly, while time-travel enables About Time to separate itself from other romance/family dramas, the actual logistics of the science fiction backdrop will be extremely problematic for some viewers. About Time spends a lot of its runtime explaining the rules of its particular take on time-travel - through a lot of heavy-handed exposition from father Lake as well as Tim's trial-and-error experimentation. Strangely, Curtis often breaks any established rules without consequence (or acknowledgment). The director is, for old reason, focused on telling the best possible character story but, sometimes, emotional moments come at the expense of major plot holes that go entirely unexplained. It's unlikely that any oversights (or cheats) will bother mainstream moviegoers who are engaged in Tim's storyline but moviegoers who (understandably) expect time-travel stories to respect their own rules will find several obvious contradictions and holes in About Time.
Overall, Curtis succeeds at telling an impactful and engaging character story about a man that can travel back in time. Solid performances from the entire cast ensure that About Time nails nearly every key moment - presenting smart and often humorous drama. That said, the writer/director benefits from his time-traveling premise without also spending the time (and effort) to ensure that About Time is also a proficient sci-fi tale. Clumsy (and downright broken) time-travel rules undercut the success of the project - as many moviegoers will, after the fact, have a difficult time piecing together the logistics and plugging-up plot holes. For that reason, science fiction fans, along with anyone who is especially intrigued by the time travel premise, should temper certain expectations and, instead, focus on About Time's endearing character moments - which were clearly priority number one for Curtis.
If you’re still on the fence about About Time, check out the trailer below:
About Time runs 123 minutes and is Rated R for language and some sexual content. Now playing in theaters.
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