Published Oct 31, 2013When told by his father (Bill Nighy) that he, and his preceding familial lineage, can travel through time if he hides in a closet and clenches his fists, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) reacts candidly, smirking and making a dry remark about the likelihood of it being an elaborate gag just to see how gullible he is. The scene isn't handled with any severity or bogged down with extraneous exposition or foreshadowing rules, it's merely a discussion about something ludicrous between two inherently sarcastic men made humorous by a generally insouciant disposition towards bigger philosophical questions about living for love, money or otherwise.
This inherent likability of the characters (Gleeson is the perfect blend of charming, witty and awkward) and this casual approach to a mostly formulaic romantic comedy, finding the idiosyncrasy and humanizing character tic buried within any given moment, is why such a seemingly lame high concept premise works. After discovering he indeed can travel through time and settling on love as a decent reason for living, Tim uses his power to fix his minor regrets in life that either have embarrassed him or inadvertently hurt the feelings of others.
This balance between living for himself and sacrificing for others provides most of the thorny, but playful vernacular of About Time's early establishing sequences. Once Tim gives up on trying to woo vacationing family friend Charlotte (Margot Robbie), learning through time travel that there's really no way to make someone love you, he sets out on his legal career, meeting Mary (Rachel McAdams) at a hilariously executed blind dining night out. After joking about their likely ugliness and the promiscuity of their respective friends, they establish a romance that's quickly wiped away when Tim travels back in time to help his family friend and flatmate (Tom Hollander) salvage a stage production that could ruin his career.
Though these conveniences occasionally don't make a great deal of sense (if he can travel through time, could he not find a way to make both situations work?), the heavy focus on character dynamics and moral underpinnings suggest a genuine lack of concern over the sci-fi aspect. How Tim attempts to reacclimatize himself to Mary, coming on too strong by listing the handful of things he knows about her, constantly jumping back in time to fix his social misdeeds and boneheaded comments, helps establish a romance and chemistry that are actually exceedingly touching and believable.
But underneath this light-heartedness, convincing romance and the consistently funny exchanges about banal relationship things like not letting on to Mary's conservative parents that they engage in oral sex ("In what situation would I randomly tell your father that I give you cunnilingus?"), there's a looming sense of time running out. Every time Tim jumps back to help his alcoholic sister or dabbles with using his gift for something darker (Charlotte shows up again), there's this sense that one false move could ruin the life he's built. As well, how the idea of time heightens the themes, being something that's idealized more than actually helpful, gives this highly effective rom-com more emotional and cerebral heft than usual for the genre.
Even though Tim has all the time in the world to make all of the right decisions, doubt and the inevitability that everything ends lingers, leaving decisions and the pain of not being able to fix every problem carrying substantial weight. It's a slightly devastating, albeit heart-warming, message that reiterates the importance of finding the levity of any given moment and trying to comfort those in need.
At the end of it all, the tragedy of About Time is that everything presented, though entertaining and moving, is entirely fabricated and idealized. Tim's strong moral compass and propensity for compassion and being entirely honest are admirable, but also extremely unlikely for someone given a superpower that would allow them to do whatever they want without fear of repercussions.
If people were really like the characters drawn here and everyone had a similar sense of underlying concern and compassion, we wouldn't need time travel fantasies to help us get through it all. (Universal)