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About Time: A Real Waste of Time

by Ethan Alter November 1, 2013 6:00 am
<i>About Time</i>: A Real Waste of Time

In the beginning, there was The Black Adder and audiences looked and saw that it was very, very good. That beget The Tall Guy and Four Weddings and a Funeral, which were better still. Bridget Jones's Diary, Notting Hill and even Bean all had their charms. But then Richard Curtis, the God of British rom-coms, got it in his head that he could direct as well as write and unleashed a curse upon the world known as Love Actually, a resoundingly unfunny and unromantic death march through some of the most tedious, sickly saccharine and emotionally dishonest love stories ever committed to screen. He followed that up with Pirate Radio, a terminally bland '60s period piece where the only memorable thing was the classic rock soundtrack. Which brings us up to About Time, Curtis's third strike in the director's chair, which suffers from the same too-muchness of Love Actually and almost-instantaneous forgettability of Pirate Radio.

As the film's title suggests, the cutesy-poo gimmick Curtis hits upon this time around is time-travel, although this version doesn't require any fancy machinery like a tricked-out DeLorean or a futuristic phone booth. Instead, all time-jumper Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, son of excellent Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson) has to do to access the past is find a dark, quiet place (like a closet), clutch his hands into fists and think of the exact point in his life he wants to revisit. And it has to be a point in his life -- no journeying back to have lunch with Winston Churchill or peeking into Mata Hari's dressing room. These are the rules laid out for him by his loving father (Bill Nighy) on Tim's 21st birthday, the age at which all the men in this family learn they've inherited this special trait. (Sucks to be born a girl in this clan, apparently.) Where Dad has primarily employed this talent to grant himself extra time to read the great works of Western literature -- since using it to make money inevitably results in complications and unhappiness… sounds like somebody watched Back to the Future, Part II a few too many times -- Tim puts it towards his so-far unrealized life goal: finding a girlfriend. Or at least a girl willing to sleep with him. Whichever comes first.

No, no -- I'm being too cruel to the lad! (Granted, it's easy when he's this much of a prat.) Tim is a big believer in what a certain priest once called "twue wuv," the kind that has the power to move mountains, build bridges and all that tommyrot. So, after a brief flirtation with dynamite blonde, Charlotte (Margot Robbie), he finally meets a girl worth manipulating time for: Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American abroad who has a nice smile, a sweet demeanor and very little personality. Though the movie takes great pains to point out that these two are basically perfect for each other anyway, there is a certain creepiness at play in watching Tim rewind minutes, hours and days again and again to essentially rob Mary of any agency she might otherwise have in choosing her own boyfriend. (In fact, one of his trips to the past is specifically designed to break her up with another guy she had recently started dating in the present.) One could make the case, I suppose, that Bill Murray more or less did the same thing to Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, but it's worth pointing out that his efforts to woo her by turning back the clock ended in failure. It's only when he started helping everyone else in Punxsutawney -- even that doozy of an insurance agent, Ned Ryerson -- and, in the process, healing his own broken spirit, that he became good boyfriend material. Tim, on the other hand, is far more selfish in his time-skipping in that he's mostly out to only help himself, at least in the romance department.

If About Time were merely devoted to Tim's time-travel assisted efforts to force Mary to fall for him, it would just be a slight, charmless tale. But it turns out that Curtis has much more -- too much more -- on his mind. The second hour of the movie turns its attention from love and marriage to family, as Tim becomes a patriarch himself and also deals with emotionally-fraught situations involving his free-spirited, unlucky-in-love sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), as well as his dear old Dad. In fact, though the ads haven't really teased it this way, the central love story in About Time is between father and son rather than son and hot American girlfriend. (The Kit Kat storyline, on the other hand, is mostly superfluous to the proceedings and obnoxiously condescending to boot in the way it ultimately pins the character's deep-seated problems solely on her choice of boyfriends. For a writer who is often feted for writing such likable female characters, based on this movie, it's almost as if Curtis has never actually met a woman.)

And look, I'm not made of stone, people: show me a dad heading back to the past to be able to spend another lazy afternoon horsing around with his kid or a grown son finding a way to carve out time for another talk with his old man and you've got me mentally cueing up "Cat's in the Cradle" and weeping over baby pictures of my own tykes. But About Time is so shameless in its manipulations, so crass in its overemoting that those tears aren't honestly earned. Like the equally overwrought Love Actually, it's the work of a writer/director who isn't confident enough in his basic vision and, in desperation, keeps piling on the sentiment until the bottom of the picture falls out. If I could travel back in time like Tim, I'd head back to the moment that Curtis dreamed up this idea and suggest that he turn his attention to a Blackadder reunion show instead. Or, failing that, The Tall Guy 2.

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