Judging by its trailers, About Time is exactly the follow-up to Love Actually that Richard Curtis fans have long awaited – more goofy, sweet wish fulfillment for hopeless romantics. But actually, Curtis’ new film is about much more than that, offering a more broadly life-affirming story of a young man whose romantic peccadilloes are merely the starting point for a portrait of the lifelong struggles we all experience, and how the people around us – including that soul mate we met cute – are instrumental in helping them achieve deeper meaning.
Domhnall Gleeson (True Grit) plays Tim, a feckless 21-year-old who learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family possess the ability to travel through time. Rather than addressing the world’s ills, Tim aims to repair the personal embarrassments that keep him from finding success with women. He soon meets a beautiful American named Mary (Rachel McAdams), whom he manages to effectively seduce without humiliating himself — well, too many times anyway. But as their relationship blossoms, Tim begins to realize his do-overs afford him more than just a second chance – rather, the opportunity to develop a greater appreciation for the world around him, which is built as much by his failures as his successes.
Many of the staples of Curtis’ earlier work pop up in one form or another in About Time to try and create the same tone and atmosphere as its predecessors – the protagonist’s almost pathological foot-in-mouth syndrome, a goofy sidekick, a tragically adorable sibling, a magically perfect-for-him love interest, and so on. For the most part, they work as effectively on their own, but the cumulative effect sometimes feels slighter, and they fit less organically together once the interchange of drama and comedy begins to push the film toward a climax. Tim’s family’s indefatigable preciousness, for example, seems excessively movie-ish, even for a film about men who can travel through time, and at a certain point they seem to exist to provide the film with a more generous ensemble of characters than it actually focuses on.
At the same time, the larger points that it makes are genuinely beautiful, if slightly heavy-handed, and the evolution of a long-term relationship between Tim and Mary is remarkably natural, after Curtis shuffles through the premise-driving conceit of Tim using his powers to woo Mary. The story’s real power comes from Gleeson’s realization that helping other people is as valuable as helping himself, and long after he’s managed to build a happy adult life with the woman he loves, the challenges become appropriately deeper and more nuanced, such as pinpointing where and how his sister’s troubled life put her on a collision course with more serious tragedies.
Gratifyingly, the film never quite makes the leap into melodramatic territory, such as putting Tim in the position of literally saving someone’s life. But its lack of clarity about his powers – such as how much is and will be affected when he crosses certain experiential thresholds – creates a suspense that only mostly seems intentional. And ultimately, Curtis manages to create such a sweet and beautiful throughline – from his burgeoning relationship with Mary to the resonance of his interactions with his father – that the film’s poignancy is frequently as stunning as in Curtis’ earlier work.
All of which is why ultimately, About Time’s title may serve as a reflection of fans’ feelings about a follow-up to Love Actually, but its execution offers a metaphor for the relationship between the two films. Because as much as we would love to go back in time and re-experience the highs of its predecessor, there’s only so much magic that can be recaptured. And for better or for worse, there’s a much larger canvas to work on – namely, life itself – which allows Curtis to explore love and a whole lot more.
About Time opens in select cities Friday and nationwide on Nov. 8.
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