About Time: Film Review

Love, philosophically.

Rom-com maestro Richard Curtis mixes familiar boy-meet-girl ingredients with time-traveling magic realism, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy.

LONDON -- A hugely successful one-man brand whose credits as screenwriter and director have raked in well over a billion dollars to date, Richard Curtis set the gold standard for transatlantic rom-coms over much of the last 20 years. The 56-year-old comedy veteran describes his third writer-director project as his most personal to date, but it still ticks plenty of familiar boxes. Emotionally repressed upper-class Brits? Check. Well-heeled West London milieu? Check? Anglo-American boy-girl romance? Gently whimsical tone? Syrupy musical score? Wedding? Funeral? Check, check, check.

The chief digressions here from the director’s established formula are a light twist of science fiction, and a lot more somber reflection on the value of love and family. This time, Curtis seems to be reaching for the philosophical depth and emotional clout of bittersweet magic-realist classics such as Groundhog Day or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He falls short of both, but his ambition is still admirable. Not as charming as his best work, but not as cloying as his worst, About Time received a modestly warm reception at its public premiere in London on Thursday. Commercial prospects will largely depend on whether the Curtis brand still packs the same platinum-plated punch as it did in more innocent times.

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Of course, Curtis made his international reputation writing the light-headed comedies Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, later co-scripting major studio projects including Bridget Jones’s Diary and War Horse. But his move from writer to writer-director has not proved quite so smooth. While his jarringly schmaltzy 2003 debut Love, Actually was a commercial smash, Curtis came unstuck with his 2009 period comedy The Boat That Rocked -- retitled Pirate Radio in the U.S. -- which stiffed at the box office on both sides of the Atlantic.

Taking no chances, About Time finds Curtis returning to familiar domestic boy-meets-girl material. Harry Potter veteran Domnhall Gleeson stars as Tim, a charmingly geeky 21-year-old trainee lawyer who is painfully clumsy in matters of the heart -- in official film jargon, this is called "the Hugh Grant role.” Rachel McAdams co-stars as Mary, the ditzy expat American who becomes the object of Tim’s romantic attentions -- in other words, the Andie MacDowell/Julia Roberts role. As ever, the backdrop is an anachronistic fantasy Britain with no discernible social or economic strife. As a shameless peddler of sunny picture-postcard cliches, Curtis is just a few steps behind late-period Woody Allen.

Early in the film, Tim discovers from his eccentric father (Curtis regular Bill Nighy) that he has inherited the male side of the family’s gift for time travel. The script makes no attempt to explain this bizarre genetic quirk, nor why it only affects men, since it is purely a dramatic device to explore how we might behave if we had the chance to constantly rewrite our past mistakes. In this sense, at least, About Time is very obviously a screenwriter’s movie.

Curtis is careful to limit Tim’s time-traveling abilities to small personal corrections -- as his father ruefully remarks, killing Hitler is not an option. With this arbitrary plot limitation imposed, Tim is free to use his secret skills almost exclusively for wooing young women, quickly settling on Mary after a blind date in a pitch-dark restaurant. Using his special powers, he transforms himself into her ideal partner by rewinding the clock every time he needs to correct ill-conceived remarks or messy misunderstandings. This motif throws up a few inspired quick-fire vignettes, including a first-night sexual encounter that Tim transforms from lackluster to red-hot.

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About Time is handsomely filmed in a more intimate, hand-held style than previous Curtis features, but it still suffers from some of the director’s familiar shortcomings. As before, 21st century multicultural London appears to be peopled almost exclusively by wealthy white socialites. Most of the female characters are thinly written neurotics with willowy lingerie-model looks, and much of the dialogue feels labored. If stuck for a joke, Curtis fall backs on the dubious comic delights of posh people swearing and casual insults that liken women to prostitutes. An odd fixation.

Overlong at two hours, About Time sags in the middle with superfluous subplots about babies, car crashes and family crises. Curtis takes a long time to deliver his banal fortune-cookie message that time is precious so we should savor every moment, value our loved ones and treat other people kindly. Really? Hold the front page.

That said, About Time is not without its redeeming charms. Gleeson makes an agreeably quirky leading man while Nighy lights up the screen with his alluringly louche charisma, as ever. Fans of the cult 1987 British comedy Withnail & I will also enjoy seeing Richard E. Grant and the late Richard Griffiths reunited for one last time in an extended cameo sequence. Crucially, there are just enough laugh-out-loud moments here to excuse the lurches into shameless, tear-jerking sentimentality.

Production companies: Working Title Films, Relativity Media

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Nicky Kentish Barnes

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie

Director: Richard Curtis

Screenwriter: Richard Curtis

Cinematographer: John Guleserian

Editor: Mark Day

Music: Nick Laird-Clowes

Rated R, 123 minutes