DVD Release Date: February 4, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: November 1, 2013 limited; November 8 wide.
Rating: R (for strong language and some sexual content)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Run Time: 123 min
Directors: Richard Curtis
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander, Lydia Wilson

There are some films you instantly become passionate about – a great romance especially. You become an evangelist for it. You’re OMGing to everyone you know, "Oh man, you have got to see this movie!" About Time wants to be one of those movies. It’s not. But as someone who found the oft-gushed about Love Actually (the previous romance from director Richard Curtis) to be wildly oversold, take my ambivalence here for what it’s worth – which may not be much to you, and even misleading.

About Time is a near-miss, which is to say that while a lot (and even most) of its pieces are the right ones they don’t magically come together. The time travel twist is clever enough, and while delightful moments emerge from this fantasy the narrative stakes are often diminished by it. But the main problem here is that it all feels like a movie that’s following a formula more than its heart. Or to put it another way: with all its quirky characters and hipster songs, About Time feels like a glossy Hollywood sellout by Wes Anderson.

There are actually two stories going on here. The primary one is a love story, and the adjacent one is a father/son story. It's too bad the focus wasn’t reversed because it’s the familial subplot that resonates. Perhaps at one point it was flipped around, but the choice to elevate its quixotic Date Movie plotting ended up suppressing the generational heart that clearly wanted to emerge.

At the age of 21, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, one of the Weasley brothers from Harry Potter) learns about a special gift from his dad (Bill Nighy, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) that only the males of his family possess: when they become adults, all of them can travel in time. There are some limitations, of course (they can only travel to the past, not the future, and just within their own lives – plus a few other caveats revealed along the way), but the actual travel itself is relatively easy. All it takes is to be in a small dark space like a closet, close your eyes to the moment you wish to go back to, and bing you’re there.

Amazingly this has had a negligible effect on world history (so much for It’s A Wonderful Life, I guess), although on occasion – or, more importantly, when the movie needs a dramatic spike – it can have adverse unintended consequences within the family line itself.  But that family line won’t even continue if the gawky and shy Tim never gets a date, a problem the high-concept hook spends its first act rectifying – and too easily at that, especially when its substantiated that no amount of time travel can make someone attracted to you.

For as light and enchanting as much of it is, Tim’s prospects – which are enhanced by multiple repeated meet-cutes (that liberally steal from Groundhog Day’s primary conceit) – virtually fall into his lap, even to the point where after a lifetime of striking out he has not one but two gorgeous women vying for his affections. When it’s clear from the outset that Mary (Rachel McAdams, The Vow) is The One, Tim’s temptation from Charlotte (Margot Robbie, TV’s Pan Am) and her supermodel looks is nothing more than a very-forced diversion. But it does offer a nice test of character in the face of possible time-travel manipulations, so that’s a plus.

More to the film’s credit, the love story isn’t solely about getting these two together as that happens by roughly the film’s midpoint. It then goes where few rom-coms do: the lovebirds building a life together. And while most of that remains largely romanticized, it’s refreshing to follow the path much further than most films allow.

The ups-and-downs that follow, however, seem too contrived. Just when everything is going beautifully, some unexpected event comes along to disrupt the happily ever after. Muting the gravity of these moments is realizing that, hey, Tim can just go back in time and divert the blindside. Granted, as more rules of time travel are revealed they end up creating difficult either/or choices for Tim, but usually they involve people and circumstances external to his relationship with Mary. Their destiny is never really in question, and even after the hard choices are made other real-life solutions quickly present themselves.

Ultimately, the truly hard choices Tim must face involve his dad. They’re the only ones that require some level of legitimate loss, regardless of the choice made. And that, in part, is why their storyline resonates in a way the rest of the film never does. It has weight and consequence. 

Furthermore, actors Gleeson and Nighy have a very strong chemistry as father and son that Gleeson and McAdams never have romantically. Individually, the two love interests have their own endearing charms and are appealing in their own right, but together they lack that intangible spark that can’t be manufactured even by the best performances (and why the earnest indie soundtrack is employed to overcompensating excess).

And in the end, the lessons Tim learns from his very unique gift of time travel are, well, just generic sentimental pablum. Relish every moment. No regrets. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t sweat the small stuff. 

Take those risks. Follow those dreams. Live in a way where you don’t desire a do-over. Good reminders, sure, but no new insights. The message, you could say, is just like the movie: it’s not bad, but it’s not special.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Alcohol is consumed casually at parties. A few moments of cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: Four F-words, five S-words, two A-words. one B-word, one H-word, two sexual/vulgar slang words, two middle fingers, and three uses of the Lord’s name in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Scenes of sexual content and undressing, but never full nudity. A couple undresses in bedroom, pre-sex. Bra is removed (no breasts seen). No actual sex shown. Couple in bed post-sex on a few occasions, naked bodies covered by bed sheets. Another moment when a woman undresses (no full nudity). Topless woman covers breasts with hands. Two spoken references to oral sex. A lesbian character is briefly introduced. Some flirting between men and women. Kissing. A woman in a bikini.
  • Violence/Other: A car crash. The physical results of domestic abuse is seen. A woman in labor.

*This Article First Published 11/1/13