I hate romantic comedies. It’s not that I hate the idea of romance in general or haven’t responded to various love stories in the past. Last year, I really liked Silver Linings Playbook, which was, for the most part, a rom-com with a generous side dish of mental health issues. The story is largely driven by Bradley Cooper’s delusions about his relationship with his ex-wife. As an overall genre, however, I find romantic comedies to generally be insipid, stupid, and, even more damaging, I think they give their audience a false sense of how relationship and real life tend to work. Call me crazy, but I really believe a significant reason the American divorce rate is so high is largely due to the way romance and relationships are depicted in media. There is no “happily ever after;” reality tells us there’s “we worked really hard to sustain our relationship,” and these movies leave people disillusioned. Ben Affleck said it best when he was accepting his Oscar last year. When thanking his wife Jennifer Garner, Affleck said maintaining their marriage was work, “ . . . but it’s the best kind of work.” I was a big fan of Mark Webb’s film (500) Days of Summer largely because of the way that film savaged the way our culture gives a completely false sense of romance, that there is this mythical perfect person out there for each and every one of us.
Having said all that, I do have to admit that filmmaker Richard Curtis is quite often the gold standard of this genre, and I think it’s largely due to his willingness to bring some sly cynicism to the party. The creator of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually, Curtis has a voice that seems to suggest something more than just the mindless sentiment that most rom-coms wallow in.
I was stunned by how much his latest film, About Time, is a complete and total misfire. Bereft of any actual dramatic tensions, Curtis’ latest dip into the rom-com pool is one of the most aggravating and insulting things I’ve seen in quite a long time.
One his 21st birthday, Tim (Domhnal Gleeson) has a sit-down chat with his father (Bill Nighy, a Curtis veteran who stole the show in Love Actually). Tim’s dad reveals that the men in their family have the ability to travel through time. It’s never made clear why the women can’t or why the men keep it a secret from them. My guess is all that would complicate the plot too much. All they have to do is go into a small, dark place, ball up their fists, and think of the exact place and time they want to be. Poof! They’re there! Right away there are huge issues with the film’s depiction of time travel. We’ve seen these expository scenes before, whether they feature Kyle Reese or Doc Brown, and these scenes are vitally important. This is the movie giving the audience the ground rules for how this particular version of time travel is going to work.
Right away we’ve got one of the film’s major problems. I realized Curtis was wanting to use time travel in a metaphorical way, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, Tim’s dad tells him outright that there is no such thing as the Butterfly Effect. In other words, no tinkering with the past here will in any way affect the future. So, if Tim’s time travel won’t affect any major changes in the space-time continuum, then there’s literally no dramatic weight to anything. Tim doesn’t inadvertently keep his parents from meeting. He doesn’t allow the set-to- be-executed older version of himself escape into the past. He doesn’t accidentally create Skynet. If nothing he does is going to have any real impact, then the film is going to be left completely devoid of any dramatic heft. And, it is. To call About Time lightweight is giving it way too much credit. Compared to this, The Big Wedding is Schindler’s List.
Tim meets and falls in love with Mary (Rachel McAdams and her enormous teeth). One of the things any romance has to have is obstacles. The lovers must have things standing in the way of true happiness. Those things might be an ancient family grudge, a gypsy curse, or a fatal disease. In order for true love to conquer all, there needs to something for true love to, you know, conquer. Tim and Mary meet, they fall in love, they move in together, they get pregnant, they get married, and so forth. Their relationship faces no hardship at all. Since the film was bobbing along with no dramatic stakes whatsoever, I was convinced Mary was going to die, which was going to force Tim to make some painful life choices. I thought there might be a Sophie’s Choice moment where he had to choose from two different outcomes of his meddling with the past. I thought some drama or conflict might come in to make the damn thing interesting. Nope. No such luck. Tim doesn’t have to make a single hard choice. In fact, the time travel gimmick really doesn’t even need to be in the film. The movie is too lazy to even bother explaining why Mary, an American, is living in London.
And, man, is the time travel here a bunch of crap. Following the film’s expository scene letting the audience know how this is all going to work, the film subverts its central premise on not one but two different occasions. It’s the writer changing the rules to suit the story and not being true to the idea he’d invented. It creates a couple of irritating “Wait, what?” moments. Also, Tim never encounters the present-day version of himself when he goes back in time. If you’re not going to take your premise seriously, then why bother at all? Next to this, Looper is a masterpiece of movie plotting.
To make matters worse, the film blatantly rips off Groundhog Day. Remember how much fun it was to see Bill Murray woo Andie MacDowell by using new information he learns about her? (“I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace.”) About Time recycles all those jokes, but it forgets to have dynamic character arcs or anything remotely interesting to say. It also doesn’t have Bill Murray.
I hated a lot of this movie, but I do have to credit some of the cast for often being great in spite of the lazy material. I’ve been a big Bill Nighy fan for years, and he’s great every time he’s on screen, which isn’t nearly often enough. Tom Hollander steals every single scene he’s in as an acid-tongued playwright. Hollander is so good, I wish the whole movie had been about his character, and we could have just jettisoned the dreadful time travel stuff.
As I said earlier, it’s clear Curtis is more interested in time travel as a metaphor than as a serious plot device, so it was even more exasperating when, at the end of the movie, he even fumbled the metaphorical parts. At the end, Tim realizes that if you live life to the fullest, you don’t need time travel. Really? That’s it? “Live life to the fullest?” I thought we might at least get some thoughtful ruminating on the nature of time. Instead, we got high school guidance counselor homilies. I was ready to hurl my soda at the screen.
The target audience may not mind (They seldom seem to; the rom-com audience is very easily satisfied.), but I found About Time to be largely insufferable.