We had a deal with Richard Curtis. He would write charming, eccentric, lively characters who would speak in brilliantly witty and self-deprecating one-liners. In turn, we would feel less guilty about getting wet-eyed over high-fructose sappy moments like Julia Roberts‘ “just a girl standing in front of a boy” speech in “Notting Hill” or Hugh Grant‘s sopping declaration of love in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or the Heathrow arrivals montage in “Love Actually.”
This time Curtis lets us down: there’s plenty of sap in “About Time,” but not nearly enough of his signature astringent wit to cut through the goo.
There’s also the issue of Hugh Grant Separation Anxiety: Grant’s star quality (crossed with the big screen’s most adorable stammer since Jimmy Stewart) elevated those earlier Curtis vehicles, and without his signature star, Curtis tries to fake it with actor Domhnall Gleeson, who acts and narrates in what comes off as an eerie approximation.
It’s like watching Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity” or Will Ferrell in “Melinda and Melinda” or any other actor in a Woody Allen movie who starts mimicking his director’s cadences. Every “Gosh” and blink recalls Grant, although to be fair to Gleeson (who played Bill Weasley in the last two “Harry Potter” movies) it may just be that Curtis only knows how to write and direct one kind of romantic lead, no matter who’s performing it.
Gleeson plays Tim, a “too thin, too tall, too orange” lad who lives on the shore in Cornwall with his eccentric parents (Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan), mum’s brother Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery) and sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). All seems relatively normal, until Tim turns 21, at which point his father informs him of an unusual legacy: All the men in the family have the power to travel through time.
The rules are basic: All Tim has to do is go into a small dark space and ball up his fists, and he can revisit places and times in which he was already alive. It’s a skill he immediately uses to mend social situations (going back to New Year’s Eve to kiss the girl who’s smitten with him rather than awkwardly shaking her hand), but he decides to save it for when he can find the love of his life.
She turns out to be Mary (Rachel McAdams, who’s already been down this road, sort of, by playing “The Time Traveler’s Wife”). Tim and Mary have a meet-cute (in one of those restaurants where you eat in pitch darkness), but when Tim goes back in time to fix an awful opening night for playwright pal Harry (Tom Hollander), their meal never happens and he has to arrange a whole new meeting with Mary.
Curtis doesn’t get too bogged down in the mechanics of time travel and quantum physics and whatnot; the whole gimmick is there to lead the film to its ultimate message about appreciating each golden moment and living in the now and such. That’s a moral that perfectly fits this era of staring at screens, but Curtis fails to leaven his sentimentality with the comedy for which he has become known.
By the time Tim’s narration blatantly spells out the message, and goes for some third-act father-son tearjerker moments for good measure, it’s too late to suddenly care about these vague outlines of characters. The rap that Curtis’ detractors have laid on his previous hits was that they were full of gleaming posh quip machines; I’ve been a fan of his work up until now, but it turns out that leaving out the quips wasn’t such a hot idea.
“About Time” is beautiful to look at, with its seaside estates and its rain-soaked weddings and besotted characters being lovely to one another, but it’s a treacly greeting card coming from someone whose love letters used to have a little more bite.