‘About Time’: Get started now

October 31, 2013

about time

I heard a lot of critics sniff at the inclusion of Richard Curtis’ “About Time” in this year’s New York Film Festival. The same cadre, no doubt, uses Curtis’ “Love, Actually” as an example of what’s wrong with romantic comedy.

I’d like to demur. I happen to think that Curtis is one of the few movie-comedy practitioners working today who can infuse his work with deep feeling, to contemplate the larger questions from a micro level, finding humor in humanity, as well as pathos.

“About Time” is only Curtis’ third film as a director, though he has written a number more. His brightly spiced version of the romantic comedy – from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” through “Love, Actually” and the “Bridget Jones” movies – established him as a writer capable of finding surprising laughs, even while working the heartstrings with bravado.

Curtis isn’t afraid of letting a touching moment be touching, but also knows when to leaven it with a bit of the ridiculous. With “About Time,” he stretches his storytelling in surprising directions, without ever losing sight of what he’s really on about.

His film focuses on Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), scion of a family with a large house and property in Cornwall. Tim is a young lawyer just starting out in London and desperately short of the kind of game he needs to actually attract the women he’s interested in.

Then his father James (the invaluable Bill Nighy) tells him a secret: All the men in the family have the ability to time-travel. Not into the future, but into their own pasts. Tim eventually figures out how to use this power to find the one thing he has always lacked: a girlfriend.

He finds her, in the person of an American working in London, Mary (Rachel McAdams), a reader at a publishing house. He meets her, loses her – then finds her back. This time, he figures out how to use his power to win her for good.

And that, for most writer-directors, would be a whole movie. Curtis, however, takes this romantic comedy and shifts gears. “About Time” becomes a love story, about the relationship between Tim and his father, the way they both use the power to learn how to live each moment with an awareness of how unique it is.

It is a lesson applied in both directions in the parent-child equation. The relationship between Tim and Mary is romantic and deep – but Tim and his father have something more, which it’s harder for these reticent British men to express. Fortunately, they have a lot of time.

Curtis is the master of that moment of humiliation that is just barely salvaged, the comic gold to be mined from someone being caught short and improvising brilliantly. Gleeson proves himself to be an apt vehicle for Curtis’ sometimes whiplash comedy, equal parts weird redhead, knees-and-elbows gawky and buttoned-up British.

Curtis doesn’t make much of the Brit-Yank cultural difference between Gleeson and McAdams, concentrating instead on their chemistry. Mary responds to Tim’s confidence and charm, unaware that he is able to repeat and refine his approach to key moments in their lives until he gets them exactly right.

Gleeson and Nighy get able assistance from Tom Hollander, as James’ pal, a playwright who gives Tim a place to live in London. Lydia Watson is believable as Tim’s lost-soul of a sister, a magic-pixie type whose tastes run to too much drinking and men who are bad for her. Lindsay Duncan is fine but underutilized as Tim’s gruffly plain-spoken mother.

“About Time” is that rare intelligent romantic comedy that’s also about something deeper. Succumb to its charms.

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