Richard Curtis’s new film About Time marks a return to the familiar territory of those nineties romantic-comedy game changers, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, which he wrote but didn’t direct.
Once again, we’re back in that repressed, financially unburdened upper middle class milieu with a bumbling lovesick hero, and a radiant spacey American woman that steals his heart.
There are the usual gaggle of embarrassing friends, a lot of voice-over and montages, a wedding, a funeral and wait … something’s missing.
Oh, right. Hugh Grant. His substitute here is the sweetly sheepish, ginger-haired Domhnall Gleeson (the Harry Potter series) with a tousled puppy appeal. Besides, he can time travel as he discovers from his dad on his 21st birthday. In fact, all the males in his family can, though there are a few rather arbitrary rules, which seem to have been invented by that great screenwriter in the sky, to make us think about what we would do differently if we could live each day again.
Gleeson plays Tim, who grows up in the fairyland by the sea called Cornwall, where his Dad (Bill Nighy, charmingly disreputable but still ridiculously fun to watch) has retired at 50 to play Ping-Pong and read, while no-nonsense Mom (Lindsay Duncan) gardens. They live with Dad’s endearing, mentally challenged Uncle D (Richard Cordery), and Tim’s even more endearing free-spirit sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), who never wears shoes and throws herself at people in affection. From the first moment you meet her, you know something bad might happen because Tim says how much he loves her.
In short, prepare to be run over by the Curtis treacle truck. The only question is whether there is going to be more sticky stuff to wash off or broken glass to pick out of your skin by the film’s end. In this case, the painful shards are few, and the sweet, sticky stuff voluminous.
After Tim discovers his time-travelling gift he puts it to work on the important thing in life, getting a girlfriend, though no matter how he twists time, he can’t seem to get the bewitching summer house guest Charlotte (Margot Robbie) into bed with him.
Later, in London where he’s working as a trainee lawyer and renting a room from an irascible playwright, Harry (Tom Hollander), he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) on a blind date at one of those theme restaurants in the dark. (That scene, which lasts a good five minutes, of two unseen couples chatting against a black screen, is one of the movie’s inspired moments).
And though they meet after and like each other, an emergency with one of Harry’s plays causes Tim to have to go back in time to fix things before manipulating a new meeting with Mary, an adorable nerd (she’s a reader for a publisher) who just keeps growing more loveable through the years.
That’s not to fault McAdams, who works to add some edge to a too-cute role (Zooey Deschanel was originally attached to the part).
The rest of the movie is a soap opera of babies, poignant moments, minor crises, and lessons about savouring each day. On the subject of time travel, it has to be said that even Curtis’s humour, his most redeeming quality, feels at best quaint. There’s a needlessly long scene where Tim is asked to advise the flighty Mary on which dress to wear, which feels left over from a 1950s I Love Lucy episode. This notion that attractive women are either inscrutably adorable neurotics or calculating vamps (Charlotte) should probably stay locked in the time vault.