[This piece contains some plot details about About Time, but nothing major that isn't revealed in the film's marketing.]
Movies are the closest thing we have to time travel, so it's no wonder — or rather, it's a rich and enduring wonder — that so many memorable films have made it their subject. Actually, let's strike that. Few if any of those films are actually about time travel. Most films that involve it use it as a means of discussing something else.
About Time, a weird British romantic comedy bearing the tearduct-tickling, hug-generating brand of Richard Curtis is, despite the protestations of its glib title, one of those. (Curtis wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, which he also directed.)
Time travel stories appeal to us, I think, because regrets, everyone has a few. That notion is present in most time travel movies as subtext. In this movie? It's the text. And About Time is one of the most lazily-conceived and manipulative pictures that that I have ever... loved. Actually.
About Time's hero is called Tim. He is played by Domhnall Gleeson; fussy, likeable, and so English, even though he's Irish. He is Lisa Simpson's pubescent fantasy made manifest in the five-fingered, anatomically correct, live-action world. Tim has — like all the men in his enviably close, communicative family — the uncanny ability to revisit any point in his own past at will.
The movie doesn't think very hard about this, or want us to, but when Tim goes for one of his temporal walkabouts, he shows up in his body as it was then, apparently displacing the then-version of himself. So's he's not some conspicuous timeline-tourist who can have highly amusing conversations with his younger model, like Bruce Willis in Looper or Leonard Nimoy in the 21st century Star Treks. He blends.
But like all movie time-travelers, he still knows he's from the future, and retains his memory, or "memory," or foreknowledge of it. Which gives him an uncontemplated, unremarked, and deeply unfair advantage over everyone he meets. After all, they're doing improv, while he's seen the day's script. This would be okay if his mission in the movie were, say, to avert the Rise of the Machines, or to make sure his parents hooked up at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Or almost anything other than to con someone into falling in love with him.
Consider: In the most romantic time travel movie ever made, Kyle Reese didn't make it his job to woo Sarah Connor. She fell for him as a natural consequence of the good work he was doing protecting her from The Terminator. Their time-conquering love happened "organically," in the language of movie-people. In a budget motel room.
Curtis seems to think of Tim as an honorable bloke who tries to do the right thing, so long as it doesn't involve unmasking himself to his wife. There's something almost Shakespearean in the way he asks us to root for a dude who woos by such underhanded means.
Tim's dad, played by the never-not-great Bill Nighy, encourages him to use his gift well. For profit? Heaven forfend! "I never met a truly happy rich person," Nighy cautions. (In his ubiquitous voice-over, Tim informs us his dad retired from teaching at 50, and their family lives in a beautiful seaside house straight out of a wine ad. So "rich" is probably a very relative term.) Nighy claims he's used his life-extending powers to get more reading done. I inferred that he's also spent off-the-books eons whoring around Bangkok or wherever, because: Bill Nighy. But his son declares, in that very first conversation with pop, to use his temporal mobility for Love.
Stop that! Stop saying "Awwwww." Tim's game is cruel. Tim's game may actually be psychotic.
And that game is: To give himself an endless supply of repeat/forgive course credits on his quest to win the Right Woman. Her name is Mary, like the blessed virgin. (Rachel McAdams, obviously. Though the panel is telling me they would also have accepted Carey Mulligan.)
It starts out innocently enough. I'll leave the details of Tim and Mary's initial meet-cute for you to discover; it's one of the best scenes in the movie. But then Tim deviates from the course of self-interest and goes back in time to do a solid for a friend of his. When next he encounters Mary, she doesn't remember him, and sure enough, her number has vanished from his phone like Marty McFly disappearing from a Polaroid picture.
Desperate to recapture what he's lost, Tim embarks upon an ambitious campaign of harassment/stalking/courtship. Mary, of course, has no inkling the the weirdly ageless, stammering ginger following her around is actually a time lord whose temporal reconnaissance missions have given him a dossier of her likes and quirks, and who even engages in sexual espionage to prevent her from hooking up with other guys. And yet once he's used his metaphysical Rohypnol to win her, he remains curiously faithful. He is adorable, this psycho.
It's difficult for me to sustain my condemnation. As played by Dohmnall Gleeson — scion of the famous actor Brendan Gleeson — Tim is, like the movie surrounding him, warm and smart-ish, even when they're both being cruel and dumb.
I submit to you, dear reader, that for Tim to engage in an occasional daytrip back to his pre-committed past to enjoy the company of other ladies would be, if not 100 percent above board, still far less of a betrayal to poor Mary than it is for him to keep secret how it was that he already knew so much about her when they first met. We and he know that the answer to that riddle is that Mary and Tim — like the lovers in the great Frank Sinatra song "Where or When" — have met, and talked at length, and looooooooooved, before. Only she doesn't remember because he has chosen to engage with the version of her that hasn't had those conversations.
Q: Sorry for interrupting, but didn't Bill Murray do all this in Groundhog Day 20 (!) years ago? Why does Bill Murray in Groundhog Day get a pass?
A: Thank you for asking. Two reasons:
1) That movie clearly establishes that Bill Murray is a jerk.
2) Bill Murray's game-elevating time-reconnaissance was involuntary.
Bill Murray doesn't know how he ended up reliving the same day over and over. Because Groundhog Day is a Harold Ramis joint, Murray's character ultimately escapes once he learns to be a better guy. Or maybe it was a Beauty and the Beast-type deal, wherein Bill Murray's curse is lifted because Andie MacDowell falls in love with him. To the movie's credit, we never find out. It's tidy.
About Time is nothing but messy. Curtis makes a half-hearted pass at establishing the rules about how his version of time travel works, but it's really just an excuse to have Nighy lament that "You can't kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately." Then there's something later on about how having a baby cramps your time traveling style, which, obviously. But Curtis abandons the rules whenever they threaten to get in the way of the Stop and Smell the Roses, And Go Back and Re-Smell Them If You Possibly Can homily he's preaching. Which is a good homily!
The end of the movie finds Curtis trying to hopscotch out of the corner he's painted himself into. He set out to make a heartwarming movie that reminds us to appreciate the present. And he's so good at heartwarming that you almost don't notice he's given us a story about a crazy man — a fickle god, actually — living in his personally curated version of the past.
Maybe Curtis figures we're ready for this kind of romance. After all, to meet a stranger who knows all about you is no longer unusual. Tim could've made Mary at lot less suspicious by telling her, "I follow you on Twitter."
(An earlier version of this piece thought Ivan Reitman directed Groundhog Day, because Ghostbusters DNA is intertwined. We have corrected.)