Richard Curtis has so much to tell us about life. Seize the day! Show people you love them before it’s too late! Don’t let the right one get away! His movies — those he writes, directs, or both — are so packed with info-feeling that they become restless jumbles of exclamation points pantomimed by actors. Some still work like gangbusters (Four Weddings and a Funeral). Others are so gummed up with allegedly colorful types and their adorable romantic problems that they meld into a sort of rom-com mulch (Love Actually). But the thorny truth about Curtis is that no movie bearing his touch is terrible all the way through. To get to the parts that are un-terrible, you have to suffer through the most idiotic plot developments and ill-defined characters imaginable. See how Curtis hooks you? He’s insidious, like ringworm.
About Time is only the third movie Curtis has written and directed, following the 2003 Love Actually and the 2009 Pirate Radio, a tepid rumpus about an illegal English radio station in the 1960s. And like those movies, About Time is dreadful in many, though not all, ways. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is the scion of an eccentric but genteel English family that likes to have lunch on the beach near their rambling family estate every day, summer and winter. But don’t hate him just yet: His father is played by Curtis favorite Bill Nighy — always a good thing — and when Tim turns 21, Dad informs him that the men in the family share a gift: They can travel back in time, but only to moments they’ve already experienced. “You can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately,” he explains, in that way Nighy has of talking while barely moving his lips — he’s so supremely understated that he doesn’t really need to.
Tim uses this newfound power to fine-tune his awkwardness with girls into a kind of stealth courtship. When he opens his mouth and something stupid comes out, he can just reel back a few minutes and smooth out all the kinks. That’s how he lands the woman who will become first his girlfriend and later his wife and the mother of his child. Mary (Rachel McAdams) is a clumsy-cute publishing type, a not-too-threatening babe who of course has no clue about Tim’s unusual gift.
Curtis uses the time-travel device to achieve a number of aims, not all of them wretched. Gleeson — son of the superb Brendan Gleeson — is that rare movie commodity, a fairly charismatic redheaded actor. Rupert Grint and Eric Stoltz notwithstanding, there’s something about ginger men that often doesn’t translate to the big screen — maybe it’s the see-through eyebrows? But as Tim, Gleeson comes off as confident and not too annoyingly shambling. He also gets to play lots of scenes with Nighy, who, as is often the case, is the best thing in the movie. Tim and his dad bond over table tennis; they discuss the intricacies of life and the craziness of their patrilineal gift between pings and pongs, and when Curtis stays out of the way, their banter is pleasingly casual. Just watching Nighy move is wonderful, and not because he does a lot of it: Even when he’s doing something as mundane as striding across a room, he’s quietly elegant, like a mother-of-pearl penknife.
But Curtis can never allow anything to be casual for long. He’s always dashing about, putting quotation marks around things, framing Important Bits of Dialogue with directorish scrolls and curlicues, squeezing every dramatic drop out of even the most pedestrian device. He works hard to find seemingly random scrapes and challenges for his characters to reckon with. Tim has a sister, a winsome soul with an equally winsome name, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), who’s introduced in the movie’s first minutes as being a lovable but fragile type. Much later — so much later that you look at her face and wonder, “Who’s that again?” — she reappears, needing to be rescued from some terrible fate, a mission Tim handles by bending the rules of the family’s time-travel code. Then she’s gone again. That’s pure Curtis: He invents characters just so he can dispose of them after they’ve served their usefulness. Even the generally lively McAdams has little to do. She starts out as a sweet, mousy single girl and trudges dutifully, in her baggy clothes, into sensible-mom territory; whatever sparkle she might have had is dulled from the start.
But gosh, Tim learns a lot during the course of About Time. Live each day to the fullest! Savor even life’s petty annoyances! Appreciate the family you grew up with, your spouse, your children, because nothing lasts! Curtis is right about all of it. If only, once in a while, he would risk being just the littlest bit wrong.