Movie review by Greg Carlson
On his 21st birthday, slightly awkward wallflower Tim (Domnhall Gleeson) receives the unlikely news that he has the ability to travel backward in time. Dad (Bill Nighy) explains the miraculous capability to his son, noting that the trait is enjoyed exclusively by the male offspring in the family line. Like most time jumping narratives, “About Time” exercises the science-fiction device to coincide with some kind of moral affirmation, even if filmmaker Richard Curtis normally makes his bones with material decidedly less bleak than Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko,” or Rian Johnson’s “Looper.”
Arguably the most common theme explored in time travel fiction is the idea that going back to “fix” – or, such as Ray Bradbury’s legendary 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder,” even just observe – something in the past will establish an alternate history/future. “About Time” is not at all interested in or concerned with the Butterfly Effect, and Tim opts to use his power to woo the woman of his dreams, the charming Mary (Rachel McAdams) – even if he has to repeat situations until he gets them just right. “About Time” does not invest in its premise with the kind of care taken by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis in the exceptional “Groundhog Day,” still the summit of time-fracturing romantic comedies.
The rules of the temporal paradox are conveniently obliterated to suit the heartwarming, completely predictable outcomes for which Curtis is known, and the writer-director busies himself with familiar tasks, especially in a plot trajectory where Tim labors to undo the misery of his sister Kit Kat’s (Lydia Wilson) bad luck and poor choices. Another thread involving grouchy playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) provides the initial complication to Tim’s conquest of Mary, leading to the movie’s most sustained consideration of time travel’s amorous benefits via the potentially endless variations of Tim and Mary getting it on for the “first” time.
A.O. Scott, Andrew O’Hehir, and Gabe Toro are just three of the critics who recognized the problematic male fantasy creep factor in Tim’s seduction of Mary. Unfortunately, Mary remains duped by Tim’s time manipulations for the film’s duration, and Curtis misses what might have been an important opportunity to engage with ideas surrounding the ethics of Tim’s superhuman ability. McAdams does the very best she can, but her character is never Tim’s equal, and their partnership is founded at least in part on a deception, no matter how much Curtis insists that time travel cannot guarantee love.
The irritating voiceover narration seems engineered to make certain the audience knows that the power to travel in time means nothing next to an appreciation of a life well-lived. Dad admits that he used his time travel powers to read every book that caught his interest, Dickens twice (the pursuit of riches is quickly dismissed as an option by both Dad and Curtis). As “About Time” wears on, Tim’s relationship with Dad supersedes the comfortable, content existence Tim shares with his wife, and the father-son spotlight contains strong echoes of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” which featured a powerful expression of paternal love and a more poignant argument that in the end, we really only get one chance.