Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: "About Time"

Most romantic movies follow a familiar pattern so slavishly their endings seem preordained. The happy couple walks off into the sunset, there is maybe a proposal of marriage, perhaps snapshots of the wedding over the closing credits.

The charming and ambitious “About Time” reaches that point about halfway through, and keeps going. We follow the couple as their journey continues into settled marriage, child birth and rearing, struggles with careers and the loss of older loved ones. The fact it also involves time travel is merely a quirk.

I enjoyed the first part of the film, even as it seemed as if writer/director Richard Curtis was laboring to repeat his success with “Love Actually” from a decade ago. Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and best known as one of the Weasley brothers in the “Harry Potter” movies, plays a typical uptight British romantic leading man, stammering adorably through his misadventures with women.

But just when the movie reached its natural stopping point, it continued onward and found a deeper, richer tale to tell about what it means to be in love. When you’re young and it’s new, love is about the flash and flame of passion. Later on, one must stoke the fire to keep it going, and learn to appreciate the low, slow burn of everyday life.

The story opens with Tim (Gleeson) age 21 and being given the news by his father (a spot-on Bill Nighy): all the men in their family have the ability to travel through time. Simply go into a dark place, clench your fists and think about a point earlier in your life, and you’ll be there.

There are caveats: you can only revisit times and places in your own life -- so Tim can’t, say, decide to take a jaunt with King Tut in prehistoric Egypt. The future’s off-limits, too. Mostly it’s an opportunity to revisit events that didn’t go so well and try again, dad instructs. Tim uses his trial run to return to a New Year’s Eve party where he failed to kiss the slightly awkward girl at midnight, leaving her crushed, and lay on a fantastic smooch.

This sets the stage for the rest of Tim’s time travel: “For me, it was always going to be about love.”

He spends the next hour or so of screen time wooing Mary (Rachel McAdams), a winsome American and fellow Londoner. They share a lovely blind date – literally in the blind; it takes place in a pitch-black restaurant with blind waiters – and hit it off. But Tim must redo the evening to help out a family friend (Tom Hollander) in dire need, and can’t be in two places at once.

First he must track her down, but finds in the week interval she has acquired a boyfriend. He tries again by intervening at the party where they met. He even hits rewind on their first night in bed to upgrade the lovemaking from adequate to epic.

The movie is often raucously humorous – the part where Tim gets to try out various chums as his best man so he can experience how awful their wedding toasts would be is just gut-busting funny.

If this sounds too gimmicky, like a Brit version of “Groundhog Day,” then you’ll be happy to know that Curtis cuts the antics off just before it becomes tedious. Instead Tim must deal with the outlier realities of being able to alter events, including a heartbreaking one involving children.

“About Time” morphs from a frothy romcom into an insightful meditation on life, love and cherishing the immediacy of workaday existence. As time goes on (and backwards, and forwards) Tim finds himself less and less tempted to hop back to put a new spin on things. We also learn poignant things about his father, who mostly used his “extra days” to read books and spend time with his children.

I admit I went into “About Time” expecting little. Instead, I discovered a romantic movie with a mountain of smarts as well as heart. That doesn’t happen too often.

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