Richard Curtis’ sci-fi romp ‘About Time’ is pretty fun — for an hour

Rachel McAdams is in love with a time traveling Domhnall Gleeson in "About Time." Credit: Murray Close
Rachel McAdams is in love with a time traveling Domhnall Gleeson in “About Time.”
Credit: Murray Close

‘About Time’
Director: Richard Curtis
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

The name of writer and director Richard Curtis has long been synonymous with a specific kind of romantic comedy — films like “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and, most egregiously, “Love, Actually,” where awkward but dashing men stammer declarations of love against gruesome pop songs. To his credit, he’s tried to back away from that. “Pirate Radio” barely has women in it at all, while “About Time” is a time travel romp.

Of course, it’s a time travel film where our (of course) self-effacing hero (Domhnall Gleeson) uses his superpower chiefly to orchestrate a life with a pretty American (Rachel McAdams). Through an often strained system of rules, Gleeon’s Tim — like his father (Bill Nighy) — can only use his abilities for minor deeds. He can’t go back and kill Hitler, but he can go back a few minutes or days or years and come up with a funnier joke or make sure Adams’ Mary doesn’t hook up with someone else.

The relative mundanity is the film’s main charm, and ultimately its liability. The first half is a reminder that Curtis — who once wrote non-romantic, sometimes hilariously pitiless shows like “Blackadder” and “Mr. Bean” — can be pretty darn charming. It’s often a hoot, thanks to Gleeson — the charming son of Brendan, both of whom have appeared in the “Harry Potter” films, albeit separately — and especially Nighy, in full Nighy swagger, delivering quotables with an unpredictable sing-song that resembles jazz. (The scene where he tries to convince his son of his unusual gift is a masterpiece of cool understatement.)

It doesn’t take a cynic to realize Curtis’ oft-unsightly sentimental streak hangs there like the Sword of Damocles. It comes crashing down to cause a sappy second, which aims for profundity and mostly reaches banality instead. Not that even its filmmaker’s most shameless bits aren’t unfortunately affecting anyway: One father-son bit is like the end of “Field of Dreams” times ten.

What it reveals about Curtis and how he sees the world is fascinating, if not always flattering. It’s telling that time travel is a male thing, outside the grasp of women, who are thus manipulated by men working outside their control. In fact there’s an alarming lack of ethics: It never once questions our protagonist’s manipulation of time and people, and seems to think one can enjoy a life of true happiness, with one’s true love, built upon some pretty serious lies. Creepy, actually.


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