As sweet, familiar and reassuringly bland as rice pudding, Richard Curtis’ “About Time” evokes a sense of deja vu, not least for anyone who’s seen “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” a conceptually similar love story that also co-starred Rachel McAdams. After the misadventure of “Pirate Radio,” Curtis returns to roost in the well-heeled, quintessentially English milieu that made him famous internationally as a scribe with “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and his directorial debut, “Love, Actually.” Still, the emphasis on fresh faces instead of Working Title’s usual thesping suspects adds some zing, and the pic will have a fine old time when it opens wide in the U.K. on Sept. 6. Universal will release the film Nov. 1 Stateside.
Although the plot covers a fair number of years in the characters’ lives, the period markers are kept to a minimum, and the film always seems to be unfurling in a nondescript contempo present where everyone looks as if they just stepped out of the pages of a spring/summer Boden catalogue. Indeed, the pic’s unapologetic focus on a mostly upper-middle-class scene will put off some audiences, particularly in Blighty, where reverse snobbery in some quarters breeds an avid hostility to Curtis’ films and the smug, bourgeois values they seem to represent. This will be much less of a problem elsewhere, especially among Anglophiles in the U.S. and/or anyone who assumes all Brits have stylish abodes in northwest London, well-paid white-collar jobs and Received Pronunciation accents, like English versions of Woody Allen’s Manhattanites (but with less angst).
The action begins in a rambling seaside mansion in Cornwall, the home of protagonist Tim (fast-rising thesp Domhnall Gleeson who, along with Damian Lewis, is doing much to promote the sex appeal of red-haired men) and his retired academic dad (Bill Nighy); his gardening-mad mother, Mary (Lindsay Duncan, hilariously described at one point as an Andy Warhol lookalike); his ditsy younger sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson); and his sweet but mentally challenged Uncle D (Richard Cordery), ticking the disability-awareness box required in every Curtis movie.
Endearingly maladroit in the manner of early Hugh Grant characters, Tim learns a secret from his dad on his 21st birthday: The men in their family are capable of time travel. It’s some kind of genetic gift that requires nothing more high-tech than concentration, clenched fists and a darkened room, more like the “Slaughterhouse-Five” kind of time travel where you can revisit any moment from your own life, rather than the mechanically assisted H.G. Wells variety. (The upshot, as Tim’s dad points out, is you can’t do anything like kill Hitler.)
Tim soon puts his newfound skill to use, as any 21-year-old would, by nullifying embarrassing moments and courting girls. Learning from his failed attempts to bed fickle Charlotte (Margot Robbie) that some things just aren’t meant to be, Tim moves to London to start his career as a lawyer, setting up digs at the home of caustic, embittered playwright Harry (Tom Hollander).
At a restaurant where diners eat in pitch-black darkness (London’s Dans le Noir, getting some ace product placement), Tim has a meet-cute with Mary (McAdams), a publisher’s reader from the States. They spark, but when Tim realizes he was supposed to be somewhere else that night, going back in time to fix the gaffe blows his chances of meeting Mary, and so he must find another way to engineer their “first” encounter. Eventually he tracks her down at a party, and the rest is essentially one long happy ending.
Unlike McAdams’ titular character in “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” Mary is never privy to her significant other’s handy secret, which might make some viewers a little uncomfortable about the fundamental lack of honesty in their relationship. But if audiences can put that aside, the script takes pains to depict Tim as the ultimate loving husband and father, willing to exploit his gift in order to perfect his bedroom technique, milk every moment of joy out of his children’s growth, and protect his loved ones from harm. Still, in his efforts to save Kit Kat from trauma, Tim learns there are some events that can’t be changed without unraveling others. (It’s interesting that every time-travel-themed love story, from Chris Marker’s masterful “La Jetee” and “Back to the Future” to this, is haunted by death and loss, no matter how comedic the register.)
Acceptance indeed reps the takeaway message in a film that touchingly celebrates life’s quotidian joys, like playing Ping-Pong with your son, rereading books or even enjoying supposed disasters, like a wedding during a torrential downpour (a swooningly romantic montage, albeit in a film with a few too many montages). Dad’s handiest advice to Tim is to simply live each day twice, first to experience it, and then again to savor it. In the end, Curtis ends up making a virtue out of the narrative’s episodic quality, a tendency that’s been criticized in his previous work; the film, like life, is just one damn thing after another, and that’s really the rather lovely point.
Gleeson and McAdams (in a role to which Zooey Deschanel was once attached) have a radiant, believable chemistry that keeps the film aloft, while the other actors glide through effortlessly, even if many of the character types (the quirky younger sister, the embarrassing best friends) are a bit too familiar from previous Curtis efforts, especially Nighy’s affable, laid-back patriarch.
Craft contributions are pro, especially John Guleserian’s flattering use of light. Soundtrack choices are at times painfully twee, and the overuse of that already overexposed tearjerker, Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” particularly grates. Still, music producer Steve McLaughlin (no music supervisor is credited) gets a pass for using Nick Cave’s immortal “Into My Arms” in a key moment that will inspire those planning their own funerals in advance.