Writer/director Richard Curtis, screenwriter of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill” and director of “Love Actually,” has taken the teeth out of time travel. It’s not that the script should give in to the standard time traveler plots—historical wrongs to right, fortunes to amass or lives to save—but despite Curtis’ usual infusion of English charm, “About Time” is humdrum. Curtis screws around too long with inconsequential romantic comedy bits, wearing down both novelty and goodwill and getting to the existential core too late.
There are no elaborate rules or mechanisms involved in Curtis’ time travel; it’s more a genetic perk. By shutting themselves in closets, making fists and concentrating on a specific moment in time, the men in the Lake family can instantaneously transport themselves to that exact moment, as long as that moment is in their lifetime. Memories of those moments’ previous iterations intact, generations of Lake males, manipulating moments to their benefit, have accumulated enough financial success and privilege that their heirs can use the passed-down ability to spend countless hours doing fuck-all.
The latest beneficiary, 21-year-old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), gently guided by his father played by the lithesome Bill Nighy, concentrates his time traveling talent on finding love. After a false start, he focuses on Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American living in London, and though Curtis’ script includes pre-marital sex, it still seems fuddy-duddy in this regard. So upstanding a fellow is Tim that his first act of time travel is to go back to the previous night to grant a New Year’s kiss to spare a girl’s feelings he doesn’t return. In fact, Tim spends a great deal of time traveling back to fix painful moments for other people that it unnecessarily complicates the storytelling. We know what’s going to happen, so Curtis should just get on with it.
This simplified time travel is an enviable talent. Who hasn’t thought of a snappy comeback moments after the end of an encounter, wished for a more graceful entrance or botched a first impression? But the problem with witnessing these types of unlimited do-overs is that they’re not very interesting to anyone but the owner of that particular life. In the big scheme, the ability covers only trivial matters that aren’t interesting to watch the first time, much less the second or third.
That is, until Curtis gets to the point in which death remains inevitable and irreversible, and there’s a problematic technicality regarding Tim’s traveling to the time before the birth of his children. The times he forced to realize that he can’t fix everything by revisiting a moment are actually quite powerful. And Bill Nighy’s performance as the retired professor who uses his power to spend time with his children and read is inspired and comforting. So it’s extremely ironic that Curtis can’t go back in time to rewrite the script with that as its focus.