Not long after his 21st birthday, Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) makes a very unusual discovery: By entering a dark space, like a closet or pantry, closing his eyes, and clenching his fists tight, he can return to any moment from his past. All of the Lake men possess this curious power, a time machine fueled and operated by their memories. Learning of the supernatural gift is a rite of passage, granted upon adulthood but otherwise kept secret, even from close friends and spouses. “Use it to make your life better,” urges the young man’s father (Bill Nighy)—and for Tim, a chronically shy fellow, that means improving his nonexistent sex life. But only when he meets American dream girl Mary (Rachel McAdams) does the budding lawyer realize his advantage, an ability to control his romantic fate by turning back the clock again and again.
Like many time-travel stories, About Time is a flight of wish-fulfillment fantasy. What if it were possible, it asks, to go back and say the right thing at the right time, to capitalize on a missed opportunity, to avoid a critical misstep? The movie is written and directed by the British filmmaker Richard Curtis, who specializes in fantasies—the dozen intersecting rom-coms of Love Actually, the fairy-tale courtship of Notting Hill, the endless receptions of Four Weddings And A Funeral. At a glance, About Time appears to be of a piece with those crowd-pleasers: It’s got in Gleeson, the bright spot of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, an earnest, charmingly awkward leading man, commanding the laws of chronology to make his dreams come true. There are also adorable English moppets, warmly colorful supporting characters, breathtaking seaside vistas, and a wedding so perfect even rain can’t ruin it. It’s all so exquisitely… Curtisian.
Yet look a little harder at this breezy, lightly melancholy confection. Isn’t there also something vaguely creepy about it? Curtis’ premise isn’t just a magical-realist plot device; it’s also something of a power fantasy. Shrewdly, the film initially brings Tim and Mary together on equal footing, allowing him to woo her honestly during a very literal blind date. That way, it’s not so strange when Tim, having accidentally erased their meet cute from existence, uses his powers to re-create the spark between them. His scheme, however, isn’t so innocuous; it entails manipulating her with her own words, rewriting her past to nudge away a competing suitor, and exaggerating his experience in the bedroom by putting their first hook-up on repeat. Sure, Bill Murray pulled similar stunts in Groundhog Day, but both the universe and Andie McDowell saw through his shit. In About Time, Tim builds a whole relationship on a foundation of deception and covertly acquired information. Without the sci-fi angle, wouldn’t that be just plain stalkerish?
As for the time-travel stuff, it seems destined to both delight and exasperate fans of the concept. Curtis’ rules are a little sketchy: For example, when Tim returns via a broom closet to a past event, what happens to the version of him already there? That said, the filmmaker also exploits his whimsical conceit in frequently inventive ways, as when a best-man speech becomes a trial-and-error audition and a deceased loved one gets to hear anecdotes about his funeral. Essentially a loose British reimagining of The Time Traveler’s Wife—complete with McAdams as the radiant object of desire, a woman worth bending reality to lure—About Time is actually most poignant when exploring the love between a dad and his son. Somehow unsentimental in his sentimentality, Nighy makes shopworn carpe diem platitudes sound like fresh wisdom. If only these father-knows-best sermons touched on the slight immorality of tricking someone into loving you.