(Photo : Universal Pictures (Courtesy of NYFF Press Department))
The romantic comedy is arguably the most formulaic of all film genres out there. Regardless of the twists and turns, the outcome will always be the same and the plot points that precede it will be a variation on some theme done a million times. One of the reasons why it endures is that when the romantic comedy is made with a top notch cast and some departure from the rules, it is one of the more enjoyable experiences at the cinema.
Along comes Richard Curtis' "About Time." The film seems ready embrace the romantic comedy with a unique concept and a terrific cast, but ultimately falls flat when it lets its central concept dominate the story and its characters.
Tim (Domhall Gleeson) is a 21-year-old looking for his first experience in love. He eventually finds out from his father that every man in his family line has the ability to go back in time to relive moments again and alter them as he pleases. Tim attempts to utilize the trick on his first love interest Charlotte (Margot Robbie) but fails. He heads to London to get on with his professional life as a lawyer and eventually encounters Mary (Rachel McAdams). After a few botched attempts at landing the girl of his dreams with the time traveling, Tim finally gets what he wants.
Up to this point, the film has created a series of unique questions regarding the time traveling element and the moral implications behind it. Tim's tampering with time has led Mary to breakup with another boyfriend and has even manipulated his behavior toward her; he almost cheats on her in one moment, using the power bestowed upon him. Once he finally gets Mary, the audience anticipates how these moral threads may unwind and how Tim might eventually give up trying to manipulate time to live his life like any normal human being. While the story EVENTUALLY gets there, it takes a long road to the destination; and it is the worst possible journey.
The film shifts from its comedic romantic comedy roots and treads the grounds of an endless melodrama with other characters in Tim's life taking precedence over his relationship with Mary. In fact, Mary's character, which is unique in its lack of confidence (this trait is never developed), becomes a plot device and a vehicle for a few jokes near the end of the movie from that point forward; it is really hard to know if any of the characters develop at all in the film's second half. The romantic element fades away, the laughs disappear and the moral implications of time travel are never really discussed, developed, or even confronted. Instead, Tim attempts to continue his path of rearranging life to suit his fancy until he hits the obvious truth: you cannot control the ultimate outcome of life. The theme may be profound, but it is delivered through a quasi-didactic voiceover that gets a bit excessive in its expository tone as the film nears its end.
The situation becomes all the more frustrating when one realizes how pointless some of the built-up tension in the first part ultimately becomes. In one sequence, Tim runs into Charlotte. The two spend a night together while Mary sleeps at the apartment that she and Tim inhabit. Tim knows what he is getting himself into in this scene, but makes several attempts to meet with Charlotte. Even if he never crosses the line, his decision to play with fire indicates that he has some mixed feelings about the limits of his time traveling power and potentially, his current situation with Mary. The viewer feels that this moment and the fact that Tim never tells Mary about it, could potentially create some harm later down the line and may force the time-manipulation into more moral problems and dilemmas. Unfortunately, this scene has no consequence and ultimately feels like forced tension to give the drama stakes that it ultimately lacks. More importantly, the film (which runs over two hours in length) could have been fine without the sequence altogether.
What this also does is ignores the potential omnipotence that Tim may be feeling with his ability to control time. Let us put this into perspective for a moment. Tim tries multiple times to meet up with his old flame and then almost cheats on his girlfriend. As aforementioned, he also ruins one of Mary's relationships to get his way. This is clearly a guy with some degree of ruthlessness that is abusing a power given to him. Why not explore the consequences of those actions? Curtis seems to look the other way regarding Tim's questionable morals simply because he wants to make him appear innocent of wrongdoing.
Surprisingly, none of these problems compare with the film's biggest issue: its concept. During the first half of the movie, the viewer simply accepts the time travel element for what it is - a plot device. There is no real need to know how the characters acquired the power. The rules seem simple enough and the use creates the aforementioned unique themes and ideas. However, the time travel takes over the second half of the movie with Tim trying to reverse events that he ultimately realizes he cannot control. The problem is that the film starts to toy with the concept and its own logic. Initially, Tim is told he can go back in time but not forward. In the first half, he goes back in time and lets events play out. In the second half, he goes back then forward instantly without warning. The events have changed, but the new rule seems arbitrary. To make up for the confusion, Tim's father (played by Bill Nighy) becomes a mouthpiece for the screenwriter and dedicates himself to explaining the tricks of the power; Curtis' decision to change the rules midway is extremely disconcerting, confusing, and serves to indicate the mess that this film unnecessarily becomes. However, the problems do not end there. Tim tells another character about the magic and then has that character (a female) time travel with him. Didn't his father tell him only men could time travel? Later on, that character seems to have forgotten about the secret, once more disrupting the logic established throughout the film.
Another major problem that more than a few audience members will surely gripe about is the fact that none of the characters seem to age in this film despite time moving forward at a relentless pace. Gleeson and McAdams look ever-young despite watching their three children growing up throughout the second half. Nighy's character goes back in time to a day when Tim was a boy, but Nighy still looks like his older self. This aspect really distracts and contradicts the logic that the film is attempting to establish.
The performances are solid throughout, which is quite sad considering the ultimatel outcome. Gleeson has awkward charm in the first half of the film while McAdams is graceful and delicate. The remainder of the cast does its part for half of the movie and then shares a few touching moments amidst the unfocused melodrama in the second part.
From a visual standpoint there is really nothing to speak of, but one particular scene early in the film showed the potential that was ultimately squandered. Tim and one of his friends head to a restaurant that is literally pitch black and gives new meaning to the term "blind date." The couples can sit at the same table but they cannot see each other. During this entire sequence, the screen is pure darkness with only the voices allowing the viewer to know how the interactions are developing; a small title card in the right corner also lets the viewer know how time is passing. The directorial decision is certainly unique in its desire to force the viewer to listen rather than to watch and shows boldness that few other filmmakers have exhibited when tackling this material. Unfortunately, the charm of that scene is not indicative of the final work but only a brief part of it.
At two hours, "About Time" is overlong and drags on in its final hour. It is a case of watching a film that you initially cannot get enough of, but eventually realize that you can't wait for it to end. "About Time" has some redeeming qualities and its first half has the makings of a great film, but the final product ultimately serves as a caution of what can go wrong when an attempt to break a formula is driven to the extreme.