Review: Richard Curtis delivers smart and personal time travel fable in ‘About Time’

Richard Curtis has made a career for himself by writing about love. Seems like a fairly simple topic at first glance, and one could argue that he created an entire subgenre of what could be broadly described as “the Working Title rom-com.” His voice has been a major part of the comedy landscape for much longer than fans of just his films realize, and to some extent, you can divide his career into everything before “Four Weddings And A Funeral” and everything afterwards.

With his new film, “About Time,” he seems to be wrapping things up, and it’s a little disconcerting to see how final it feels. Many of the ideas he’s tackled in his work over the years are present in “About Time,” and it feels like he’s grappling with his own legacy in the film. He’s also doing it without the sort of star power that has driven some of his biggest successes, and I suspect the movie will surprise many audiences, and not always in the right way. Last night, as I was leaving my screening, a couple was walking through the Arclight behind me and the woman was complaining non-stop that this isn’t some broad comedy about Rachel McAdams trying on hats and getting herself a man. She seemed almost offended that the film grapples with notions of family and mortality and the way we use time and how we prioritize the people and the events in our lives. It was a much heavier meal than she expected, and it obviously upset her.

Personally, I’m glad to see Curtis taking his keen ear for verbal wit and his particular voice for character and applying it to something like this. It feels very personal, very sincere, and it takes a high concept idea and applies it to something so universal that it seems like anyone would be able to relate to it in some way. Time travel movies are usually about regret and somehow fixing something that has gone wrong. The best example, of course, is “Back To The Future,” and while I’ve written at length about how much I love those films, there is a narrative convenience to them that has to be acknowledged. Marty McFly not only identifies the central moment in the lives of his parents, the moment that defines everything that happens to them for the next 30 years, but also knows how to fix it in one fell swoop. The truth is that we rarely fix our lives simply by throwing a well-timed punch or by making one single decision, and “About Time” addresses that in a very realistic and intelligent manner.

If you’ve seen the trailers for the film, understand that Universal was in a no-win situation on this movie. Everyone I’ve spoken to at the studio really likes the film, and they’re very pleased to be releasing it, but they also know that it’s impossible to convey what the movie actually is in trailers and commercials without completely ruining it. Instead, they make it look like a broad comedy about a guy who learns he can travel back in time to any point in his own life who then uses it primarily to change the way he talks to girls. That is not the film. Honestly, although love and romance and marriage and family are all part of the film’s DNA, I wouldn’t call it a romantic comedy. Instead, it is about the journey of life and how hard it is to find the right perspective on it when we get lost in the details of the day-to-day.

Domhnall Gleeson, most recognizable from his stint in the “Harry Potter” films as Bill Weasley, stars as Tim, a young man growing up in Cornwall, leading a quiet, average life. He lives with his father (Bill Nighy), his mother Mary (Lindsay Duncan), and his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), and he has a fairly routine childhood. As he turns 21 and prepares to leave for London, his father explains that all of the men in their family have always had the same secret ability to travel backwards in time. He tells Tim that he will have to figure out what it’s for, and that there’s no one single answer to that question. Tim’s first thought is to use it to get a girlfriend, something that seems like an entirely reasonable desire for an awkward but decent young man.

One of the lovely smart choices that Curtis makes with his script is that Tim does find a girlfriend, but it has nothing to do with his time traveling ability when they meet. It’s only after that first magical encounter that Tim starts grappling with how his gift might help him and the people around him. When he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), a bookish American girl who is a reader for a major publishing house, it’s about as pure a first encounter as you could ask, one of those “dine in the dark” restaurants where they end up at the same table for a long, pitch-black dinner. They are drawn to each other immediately, and it’s not until hours after that spark has already bloomed into a full flame that they finally see one another’s faces.

Early on, we see Tim turn back time to help other people, and in doing so, he undoes his own happiness without realizing it. He doesn’t seem to begrudge the people he helped, but he does start to realize that he has to pick and choose what he’s willing to rewind. The longer he lives, the more life they share together, the less willing he is to pick at the fabric of it, and every change he does make seems to bring with it ramifications that he’s not able to predict.

Even talking about it like this, it still sounds like the film is “about” the time travel. It’s really not. It’s a device. It’s just a way for Curtis to get his characters to think about and deal with some of the biggest things we face as people. Our intangible and impossible-to-describe relationships with our children. How we spend our time and even how we think about it as currency. What we want to leave behind. How memory plays a part in who we are. Our inability to save other people from themselves. Our compulsion to try anyway. Gleeson is a very good lead here, charming and real and self-effacing in a way that most of the great Richard Curtis male leads are, and McAdams is a lovely sparring partner for him. What interests Curtis about love is never the greeting card version of it, but rather what that love does to us as people. How does it change us? How does it connect us? He is very good at writing scenes that illuminate a particular type of behavior, or a moment that we can relate to, some pivot point where things change between two people in some way, and when a film covers as much of a life as this one does, focusing on those essential moments helps paint the big picture.

It’s the film’s final third where it goes from being a very good, very smart Richard Curtis film to being my favorite of his movies, though, and it’s because he starts to hit harder. There’s a stretch of the film that really hurts, and the entire cast is pushed to show real growth for each of the characters, the way people change over the course of their lives. I thought Lydia Wilson’s work as Tim’s free-spirited sister who life kicks in the teeth was the good version of the character that Robin Wright played in “Forrest Gump.” In that film, it felt like the entire point of that character was to punish her for being who she was, and in this film, it feels more like a study of how each family has that one person who may not be as strong as the rest of them by themselves, but who can thrive as long as they have the strength of the family to draw upon. That could have been a film by itself, but it’s just part of the texture of the family life in the film.

I won’t lie… part of what I loved most is the father-son relationship between Nighy and Gleeson, and it is so beautifully played, so exquisitely calibrated, that when Curtis does finally drop the hammer on the audience, it was devastating. I bought into it completely. My parents are in relatively good health, and I am pleased to see that they seem to be enjoying this part of their lives right now. I am extraordinarily fortunate to still have both of my parents alive and well, and each time I see some new sign of age on either of them, it’s quietly scary because it is a reminder that time passes and nothing is permanent. Reaching my age and still having both of them makes me, if anything, more keenly aware of the clock. I cherish the time I have with them right now, and learning to do that is a big part of what “About Time” seems to want to express.

The score by Nick Laird-Clowes is ably assisted by a songbook that lends the right emotional punch to each stretch of the film, and I think Mark Day’s editing and John Gulerserian’s photography both feel very loose, off-the-cuff, a nice contrast to how very slick and sharp Curtis’s craft as a writer has become at this point. This is only his third time directing his own work, and I think Curtis evolves from film to film. “Love Actually” feels like the perfect version of the Working Title rom-com, and “About Time” feels like whatever comes next. It is an evolution, and one that seems heartfelt. There is real wisdom in this movie, and there’s something very clever and almost sneaky about making a film that could only be written and directed from the perspective of someone much older but told by a character who is very young, just starting out in life. “About Time” is a very special expression of the voice and the philosophy of one of pop culture’s most mainstream romantics, and not remotely what I expected. A surprise like this is what makes this job so constantly exciting.

“About Time” opens in theaters everywhere November 8, 2013.