“About Time” is sweet but struggles

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There are an endless number of jokes waiting to be made about a film whose title is About Time (“Guess what the first two words out of my mouth were when that was over!”), and any reviewer who thrives on negative criticism (which would be all of them) must feel sorely deprived after viewing this film, because despite what the studio’s marketing ploys may suggest, About Time is not your typical romantic comedy.

The film introduces us to the life of Tim Lake (Dormhnall Gleason), a shy, lanky young man of 21 whose biggest regret at the time is not kissing the-girl-next-door on New Year’s Eve. We’re treated to little exposition when his father (Bill Nighy), tells him the family secret: All the men in the Lake family can time-travel. Those who strove for wealth lived calamitous lives; he should only use his gift for the things that matter. Tim spends the following summer trying to make the love of his life fall in love with him, but no matter how much he manipulates their relationship through the course of time she rejects him. His broken heart takes him from Cornwall to London, where he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and after accidentally undoing their perfect first meeting through time travel, he tries to make it so they meet again.

The film’s best quality is its distinctly British sense of humor—the comedy has hints of the snark that Ricky Gervais and Simon Pegg popularized in America, but it’s tongue-in-cheek enough to appeal to mainstream audiences. There are enough laugh-out-loud moments to cancel out the groan-worthy ones, which can’t be said for most romantic comedies. Rachel McAdams and Dormhnall Gleason have great chemistry, Gleason playing the goofy everyman with deft comedic timing and McAdams appealing in a smartly subdued performance. Without the burden of a script drenched with melodrama, she’s a refreshingly easy presence onscreen. Bill Nighy is critically underused, extremely charismatic and an especially good pairing alongside Gleason.

Make no mistake, “pleasantly surprised” isn’t instantly synonymous with “highly recommended,” because I did have a lot of problems with this movie.  I’m not a fan of Richard Curtis’ (Love Actually, Notting Hill) work as an ensemble director, which is why I was pleased when the first half focused solely on the relationship between the two protagonists. But Curtis stumbles when outside of the parameter a multiple storylines, and as a result the film feels episodic, stuffed at an overlong two hours with subplots extrinsic to the story. This is especially irritating since the film would’ve done much better to further explore the consequences of Tim’s time travel; the magical realist approach is understandable, but that doesn’t excuse unresolved storytelling. Tim idealizes his relationship to one that contains no conflict whatsoever, which should be an obvious thing to explore in a film that essentially has no conflict for its majority. More frustratingly, the connection between love and time is never explored, and the characters simply meander throughout their lives. As a result, the story’s predictable—it does, in the final scenes, strike a touching note, but the journey to get there feels unrewarding.