“About Time,” Richard Curtis’ third and final film as a director, is — wait a second. Today’s theme being time travel, let’s suspend that thought and return to the not-terribly-distant past — specifically, to the fall of 1980, when Universal (the distributor of “About Time”) was launching a very different sci-fi love story in theaters. That film was “Somewhere in Time,” a now cult-beloved weepie that starred Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour as lovers whose passion transcended time, sense and the derision of most critics. Faced with a work of such swooning preposterousness, Roger Ebert could only shrug and ask, “Isn’t it a little futile to travel 68 years backward in time for a one-night stand?”
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In his Variety review, Joseph McBride proved kinder than most, writing that “Somewhere in Time” “harks back to such 1940s Hollywood romantic classics as ‘Portrait of Jennie’ and ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,’ in which people from different eras managed to overcome all physical obstacles to their love.” He went on to note, somewhat apologetically, “This kind of film has always been a matter of taste, with some finding the genre enchanting and others finding it insufferably corny.”
Consider me enchanted. Ludicrous and irresistible, “Somewhere in Time” belongs to a long and glorious tradition of love stories, including 2006’s “The Lake House” and 2009’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” in which time travel serves as a crucial narrative element and structuring device. It is a genre whose charms I’ve found myself unusually susceptible to in recent years, and in some cases — as some of my friends have told me, with the sort of kindness that usually attends an intervention — it has managed to erode my critical faculties altogether. And why not? Wildly romantic, brazenly paradoxical and stubbornly resistant to the rules of logic, these films rely for their effect on a blissful surrender of reason. To dismiss them as ridiculous or implausible is to miss both the point and the pleasure.
And let’s face it, plausibility is overrated. The average movie romance, governed by the less-than-exacting standards of Hollywood realism, will bend over backward to manufacture some sort of third-act conflict or misunderstanding in order to suggest that its star-crossed lovers may not come together in the end. Done with enough tragic conviction — like, say, the car accident that derails Deborah Kerr’s Empire State Building date with Cary Grant — it can make for a superior tearjerker. Comedy, of course, is harder. Because we know what will happen, The Conflict can feel less like a genuine obstacle than an idle threat, turning the movie into a suspense-free exercise in prolonged inevitability. Of course Harry will end up with Sally. It’s only a matter of — well, time.
The appeal of the time-travel romance is that it acknowledges the artificiality of this contrivance and dispenses with it, treating love as a fragile and sublimely irrational force of nature. When a movie would have us believe that two people are truly destined for one another, their enemy should not be their own doubts, dissatisfactions and hang-ups. (That’s what real life is for.) Their enemy should be downright metaphysical. They must do battle with the space-time continuum itself.
It’s ridiculous, after all, that something as silly as an argument could keep apart two people with as much natural chemistry as Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves; the mere presence of their names above the title should be enough to assure you of the outcome. And as far as movies are concerned, the temporal loophole that enables and sustains their connection in “The Lake House” is really no less persuasive than the bomb-rigged bus in “Speed” — and as a means of ingeniously keeping two potential lovers from sharing the screen, it’s as effective a stunt as anything in “Sleepless in Seattle.” Two people writing letters to each other across a two-year divide? What could be more idiotic? Or, really, more delightful?
A remake of the 2000 South Korean drama “Il Mare,” “The Lake House” unfolds in a subdued, wintry emotional register that renders its inherent silliness all the more appealing. With a few more intentionally funny moments and a different title — say, “The Magic Mailbox” — it could have been played, no less pleasurably, for upbeat comedy. “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which I seem to be almost alone in liking, ushers the form even further in that direction. At heart, Robert Schwentke’s 2009 adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel is just as sentimental a wallow as “The Lake House,” but it’s also constructed with a playful, puzzle-like intricacy that allows it to have more sheer fun with the conventions of time travel than just about any movie since “Back to the Future Part II.” (When the plot requires Eric Bana to teleport naked through time, an excessively somber tone does no one any favors.)
At its best, the time-travel romance encourages a certain dramatic insanity, and by studio standards, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is an unusually nervy, radically convulsive piece of storytelling, skipping back and forth across years, and sometimes decades, with little in the way of explanation. (The answers can be found only in the faces of the film’s incandescent leads, Bana and Rachel McAdams.) What makes the story reverberate so poignantly in the end is that Bana’s extreme, uncontrollable condition — think of it as a permanent case of the temporal hiccups — holds up a mirror to our own relational shortcomings, our frequent inability to truly appreciate those we love apart from the fleeting, ungraspable moment.
Which is as good a segue as any to “About Time,” a picture that touches on some of the same themes, albeit with a crucial difference. This time, the story follows a man (Domhnall Gleeson) who has complete command of his time-traveling ability, making him a rather different sort of hero from Reeve, sweating up a storm in his hotel room as he tries to will himself back to 1912 in “Somewhere in Time,” or from Bana, rudely yanked from one era to the next in “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” Unlike those films, “About Time” is not about a supernatural quandary that keeps two people apart; it’s about a gift that keeps on giving, to the point where it reveals itself as patently unnecessary. The secret to happiness, our hero tells us, lies in learning to appreciate every mundane moment, in resisting rather than indulging the urge to twist everything to our satisfaction.
Easy for him to say, of course. “About Time” is, in the end, the sort of cozy wish-fulfillment fantasy that comes naturally to Curtis, a master of well-heeled British complacency. As others have pointed out, the film’s gender politics are particularly indefensible: This is the story of a young man who uses his powers — passed down exclusively from father to son — to ensnare the woman of his dreams (McAdams, who clearly can’t get enough of this type of role). That Gleeson’s character is a nice, well-intentioned, only moderately conniving fellow is beside the point; countless movies have treated women as a mere afterthought, but I’ve rarely seen one that reveled so unabashedly in their lack of agency. But then, this may be just the most extreme example of the reflexive sexism that admittedly runs through the time-travel romance, in which the traveler is almost always a man on a mission to secure the female object of his desire.
I’m making it sound as if I dislike “About Time,” which is rather far from the case. The film does not achieve, or even aim for, the ecstatically romantic heights of its predecessors; it is, finally, a more grounded, commonsensical entry in a genre that I’ve always liked best for its rapturous flights of nonsense. But plain-spoken wisdom has its place, and there’s no denying that Curtis’ sweet, genteel message about being content with one’s lot in life, and seeing the perfection in imperfection, manages to touch a chord. (Take it from me: If you’ve lost a loved one to long-term illness, it touches about five chords.) Chalk it up to my weakness for a genre that threatens to erase all distinctions between good and bad, but after the excesses of “Love Actually” and “Pirate Radio,” Curtis has succeeded in directing a movie I actually liked. That it will apparently be the last film he ever directs is, fittingly enough, a reinforcement of the movie’s philosophy: Best to leave well enough alone.