"About Time" is a time-travel drama, made by a British filmmaker who seems to have zero interest in science fiction.
Instead, writer-director Richard Curtis uses the device to milk maximum tears from his willing fan base. It's surprising that more filmmakers haven't tried this. Why settle for one first date or baby's birth or death scene, when you can play it again and again and again?
There are a lot of ups and downs, especially for unsuspecting moviegoers resistant to being charmed into a stupor by Curtis' reliable blend of clever banter and emotional manipulation. But the self-consciousness that made the director's "Love Actually" a love-it-or-hate-it film is dialed way down. "About Time" is more of a love-it-or-like-it proposition.
The biggest asset is Domhnall Gleeson, a red-haired actor who will be relatively unknown to Americans and is perfectly suited for this role. He's a younger, more accessible version of Hugh Grant, who always seemed a bit too good-looking to play those bumbling sad sacks anyway.
Tim (Gleeson) has just turned 21, and his father (Bill Nighy) tells him a secret: That the men in his family can travel back in time. There are rules, all of which will be broken. Using Nighy as his mouthpiece ("I can't kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately"), Curtis quickly makes it clear that there will be no action-movie turns, or beat-the-clock scenes with a time-traveling DeLorean. Tim will use his powers to accomplish the only thing that matters in a Curtis film: To fall in everlasting love!
For moviegoers who can't fathom any situation worth $10.50 to witness everlasting love, steer clear of "About Time." But the drama offers something for almost everyone else, including those who find Curtis' work (he wrote both "Bridget Jones" movies) a little too cute. The structure of "About Time" – layered in a big cinematic quilt, with shaky cinematography, dreamlike at times – feels akin to an art film in places. And yet the script remains sharp, without the distraction of too many side plots.
The film owes a little too much to "Groundhog Day," the middle part in particular. And there are filmmaker-specific problems, most notably the dishonesty of the premise. In the beginning, Tim's use of his powers is no less sexist and borderline predatory than Scott Baio lifting skirts in "Zapped!" Tim manipulates his soul mate, Mary (a lovely Rachel McAdams), never revealing his power to her.
Some characters seem to exist only to make Tim's world more idyllic, including a too-quirky sister and an uncle whose mental illness/slowness seems purposefully vague to increase the charm factor.
But there's a well-executed turn late in the film, where Tim's emotional ride begins with a different character, and the chemistry is even better. At that point, the sci-fi rules have long since been abandoned. The emotional pull is so strong, it's easy not to care.