Brothers and sisters in feels, we are now on a mission. Come hell, high water, or cynical, heartless film critics who think sentiment is a dirty word, we CANNOT allow Richard Curtis to actually retire. If he wants to give up directing because it’s too grueling, fine. But I can’t deal with a world in which a new Richard Curtis screenplay isn’t in the future. About Time is just too charming.
Though it hasn’t single-handedly resurrected the long dead genre of the rom-com. Not because it doesn’t work, but because About Time ISN’T ONE. Take the Notebook-y trailers and TV spots with a grain of salt. The PR machine is marketing a sweet, optimistic dramedy in the only way it knows how: as a beacon for weepy women who are hungry for the grand gesture. (And Kim and I certainly don’t know A THING about that.) About Time is about love in all forms: familial, friendly, and yes, romantic. But despite the fact that Bill Nighy isn’t even on the movie’s POSTER, it’s mostly about the love between a father and a son and how that father prepares his boy for life.
Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is Tim, a Cornwall boy whose dad (Nighy) lets him in on a little secret when he turns 21. The men in the family have the ability time travel within their own lives. (“I can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy.”) There’s no explanation for it, but whatever deity bestowed this gift gave it to the right family. Tim and his dad are the kind of fundamentally good people with which Curtis populates his work. (There IS mention of an uncle whose greed got the better of him, but only as a cautionary tale to a curious, not avaricious Tim.) Dad (known only as this throughout the movie) used his time to read everything. EVERYTHING. Twice. And Dickens three times over. Dear, precious, awkward ginger Tim uses his newfound power to pursue and win Mary (Rachel McAdams in her third time travel movie – good girl), an honest and saucy American. I say again that this IS NOT a rom com, but man, can Curtis write a meet-cute. “I used to think this phone was shit,” Tim says after Mary gives him her number, “but now it’s my most precious possession.”
Gleeson (that’s Bill Weasley to my Potterheads) has got a FACE, you guys. As far as I’m concerned, the entire movie rests on this performance, and my god, what a gloriously expressive face. Tim isn’t a huge personality, and despite his little quirk, is largely a normal guy. There aren’t any outlandish traits to play up. But Gleeson quietly involves us completely in Tim’s story – we always know what he’s feeling. “But Sage,” you say, “there’s a voiceover. Of course we know what he’s feeling.” I know what I’m about, son. While voiceover can be incredibly exhausting in a film, Curtis knows what he’s doing. His voiceovers, even though they’re first person, sound more like beautifully composed stage directions. We know by the way Tim looks at Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) that he loves his wild and vulnerable sister, but should we then be denied words like, “In a house full of sensible sweaters and haircuts, there was this nature-thing”? Imagine the opening credits of Love Actually without Hugh Grant’s “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world” monologue. Unbearable, I know.
I’d consider McAdams more of a supporting role than a leading lady in this one, though there’s no doubt that she’ll always be right to play the love-at-first-sight girl. What made Mary such a refreshingly different love interest was her straightforwardness and aversion to bullshit. After Tim ruins their first magical meeting by re-doing the night to help out his sour playwright roommate Harry (Tom Hollander – EVERYTHING), he tries to throw himself in her way again. We see how Mary would be on a regular, non-magic day when some too-eager stranger is all up in her grill – annoyed and brusque, hardly a manic pixie dreamgirl. She also pulls what may be the ballsiest first date move in history. After dinner, she asks Tim to walk her to her car…which is parked in front of her apartment. (Kim and I may have applauded.)
Enough about Mary, though. On to the true love of Tim’s life. I am a complete sucker for a good father/son story, and this one pushed all of my buttons. First of all, it’s got Bill Nighy as a ping-pong obsessed, highly literary, and affectionate papa. And when has Nighy been an iota less than sheer perfection? And then there’s the time travel element, a clever metaphor for the transient nature of life. I love how the process of traveling is so simple – it seems like anyone could do it, if they only tried. So, it’s truly a gift that Tim’s dad gives to him. Of course, there are rules (and no River Song to show up and shoot holes in every paradox), and there’s nothing anyone can do to bring time to a standstill. And if it came down to it, we wouldn’t want to anyway. “You’ll cry buckets,” I’ve been telling people about this movie. “But it’s not depressing.”
Tim can go back and be more smooth with girls. He can choose, based on appropriateness of the speech, who should be his best man. He could even pick a wedding date that doesn’t end in a torrential downpour and the reception tent bring blown out to sea. But what use is a perfect life to anybody? When Tim chooses to walk away from the lay of his dreams, even though he could go back to the same night and go straight home to Mary afterwards, we know that those two crazy kids are going to be fine. The danger turns to Tim’s family: fragile Kit Kat and his failing dad. Now the farther he goes back, the more things can change. There’s traveling to before his first kid was born, otherwise there’s a stranger baby running around his house. His control is slipping away, but it’s his dying father who helps him to let go. He has his own family now, and saying goodbye is just a part of the natural order of things. When Mary wants to have a third baby and Tim realizes he can never again go back to before his father died, he makes a choice to live in the present. And he makes it every day after, to make his dad proud.
A.O. Scott opened his review of this in the NEW YORK DAMN TIMES by whining about the “crisis of British manhood.” Please. This is where we are, people. Where being an non-emotionally retarded human who puts family and happiness over work and money and forever being too cool for anything that’s sincere is a “crisis of manhood.” I mean, clearly red-blooded women have no sexual interest in intelligent, passionate, and warm British men. Clearly. We NEED movies like this, that celebrate the beauty of the ordinary. So, carry on, Richard Curtis. Those of us who prefer our movies with a little heart salute you.