About Time takes a little bit of Groundhog Day, a smidgen of The Butterfly Effect, a huge dollop of Hugh Grant and mixes it all up in that Richard Curtis schmultz we’ve all grown to know to produce… what, exactly? A terrifying romantic comedy that kept my face transfixed like this:
The film isn’t too bad in a don’t-think-about-this-too-hard kind of a way. Of course, I did end up thinking about it and so here we are. Again.
The protagonist in About Time, Tim Lake (a ‘clever’ anagram of Lak Time?) has the ability to travel back in time at will and redo the bits of his life that he fucked up. Spilled soup all over yourself on a date? Just rewind and stop being such a god damned klutz! God. Anyway, that’s the little twist on your typical boy-meets-girl story that made me worried before I even started watching it. As Bill Murray showed us in one of the greatest films of all time, Groundhog Day, it becomes all too easy to manipulate people when you have the power of infinite do-overs. Of course, the whole point of Bill Murray’s character was that he was clearly an asshole, so obviously he was going to Jehovah his way around Punxatawny until he was brow beaten into humanitarian empathy. Tim is a nice guy: he’s basically a ginger Hugh Grant, and who doesn’t like Hugh Grant? Or gingers. If Nice Guy Tim used his powers for seduction, that would kind of put PUAs and date-rapists basking in a positive reflected light. Uncomfortable. So, does Tim use his power for evil?
Sort of. But mostly, no. He does tug a few strings in order to bend Rachel McAdams’s lifeline towards his; he does learn enough about her to be able to start a conversation with her (albeit an appallingly written one, from which no sane woman would do anything but back away slowly); he doesn’t go all out puppet-master on her: you always have the feeling he actually wants her to like him and he’s just too much of a dolt to engage with her linearly. In fact, the only reason he starts manipulating things in the first place is because he has to sacrifice their first meeting in order to time travel back to stop Richard E Grant from ruining everything. Obviously. He’s a nice guy. He’s Hugh Grant. He’s ginger.
Stars suitably aligned, they go back to her place and have sex. As you do. It’s all a bit fumbly and tumbly, but they seem to have a nice time. Not nice enough for Tim, apparently. Yes, fair reader, he actually rewinds and gives it another shot.
No, Tim! Stop it! You’re supposed to have the awkward fumbliness, the getting used to each other, the funny little moments along the way – sex or otherwise. But especially sex. But especially otherwise. Furthermore: she said she liked it the first time, you stupid motherfucker. Learn to take a compliment*. The second time they have sex for the first time (still with me?) he’s working it like a pro, he’s totally all up ons. She’s wowed, he’s a total stud – hooray for Tim. But he’s still not satisfied! Back we go.
No, Tim! Stop this! The third first time, he basically just barges into her room and dominates her. She seems appreciative and the whole thing is played for comic effect, but you have to start to ask questions here. Tim gets three shags for one agreement of consent. Right? Time travel screws with the rules of consent a little, but in normal, linear life he would have to wait for her to agree to have sex with him a second and third time, but instead he just leaps back to the first time and steals some extra sex just for himself. It’s not just me, is it? That’s dodgy territory. It’s played under the pretence of him wanting to give her better sex, but still, it’s like temporal rohypnol, really. Come on, Tim. You’re better than this. And now ‘rohypnol’ is in my search history because I wasn’t sure how to spell it. Thanks a fucking bunch, Richard Curtis.
Let’s dip out of the narrative for a moment and talk about what this film is actually trying to achieve by bringing time travel into the mix. Groundhog Day uses a similar looping-time device (albeit one out of his control) to explore the character of Phil Connors and how he learns to be introspective and empathetic by forcing upon him a saturation of genuine characters. The arc of the story is the destruction of his misanthropy and the struggles he faces as he tries and fails to block out the world. Essentially, the film completely ignores the sci-fi elements – the whys, the what-ifs and hows – and focuses on Bill Murray dealing with the freaky-deaky. That’s all the film needed. Conversely, The Butterfly Effect ignored exploring characters in any depth, presenting weird, one-dimensional marionettes in order to delve into the idea of time-travel and chaos theory. It’s an valid path to take, though it took a blunt hammer to a lot of quite serious and nuanced issues.
About Time tries to do both and achieves neither. It doesn’t have a clear idea of what it’s trying to be, so flits nervously between the two studies of character and time-travel, desperately spinning plates but not really committing to either. Most whimsical tales carried on a fantastical McGuffins aren’t interested in ‘rules’ and the audience happily accepts the bend on reality without asking questions. But if you start introducing rules, you give the audience reasons to ask questions. For the first half of the film you believe Tim can only travel backwards and so has to relive the time repeated. Half way through the time, with no revelation, Tim is able to ‘visit’ the past and travel forwards again. Wow, that would have been useful earlier in the film, Tim. Thank goodness you figured that one out. Furthermore, to travel in time, Tim has to get into a dark cupboard. He then emerges from the same cupboard in the past. Where is Original Timeline Tim™? There isn’t one. Tim has replaced him. This means that if Original Timeline Tim™ was in the middle of a conversation or driving a fucking car he’d surely just disappear when Future Tim arrives in the past? Won’t that cause serious problems? This issue is left unexplored.
Fine, it’s a romantic comedy, not a sci-fi story. We’ll let it slide. But a romantic comedy follows this format: protagonist meets someone they love; they swan about being amazing lovers; protagonist fucks something up, leaving their relationship in doubt; protagonist wins over love interest (and our hearts) and everything is awesome.
About Time follows this arc: protagonist meets someone they love; he wins her over with superpowers; their love blossoms unchallenged for the back 2/3 of the movie. Seriously. Their relationship is never even doubt, even when Curtis mounts a Chekhov’s Gun in having Tim propose in response to very nearly sleeping with some hot girl that got away. Come on, Curtis, Rachel McAdams is supposed to find out about that shit! She’s supposed to get angry and then Tim has to decide whether erase-and-rewind or make amends for his idiocy in real time. This shit writes itself!
Maybe I’m being a little harsh on the film; the truth is that the main relationship is just another massive McGuffin. The real story is Tim learning to appreciate life’s little details. Remember earlier on when he kept having sexual do-overs and I kept telling him to stop and smell the roses (not a euphemism (well, I guess it is a euphemism, but not a sexual one (well, maybe a little bit sexual)))? Apparently, that was the whole point. Tim learns to stop using his powers and start appreciating life and all its precious memories. We get sweet moments with his father and some slightly problematic attempts to fix (and then unfix, so she can learn her lesson?) his sister’s abusive relationship, mental illness and alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, the film does not present you with this intrigue until the end, so the narrative floats absently throughout. Tim waltzes through the film, privileged and untroubled, touching the lives of those around him some kind of ginger Jesus, before relinquishing his powers in order to enjoy life in all its thorny glory. It’s just weird.
It’s full of nice little moments: his relationship with his father is touching and well written, his theatre friend is a fun side-character, the occasional explorations into chaos are interesting, the distance it keeps itself from sickly sweet romanticism is refreshing. As a unit, however, these components work against each other and make the whole experience less than solid. But it’s alright. I guess.
What I really wanted the film to do was take a dark twist halfway through. Maybe Rachel McAdams scorns Tim and sent him repeatedly attempting to ‘fix’ things with time travel, but making things worse and worse, driving him mad and psychopathic. Bill Nighy would have to chase him through time in a vain effort to repair his devastations and finally end the horror by pulling out of his wife, thirty years previously and ejaculating out of the window instead. You wouldn’t have seen that coming, would you?
*yeah, shut up people-who-have-slept-with-me. I’m allowed to be a hypocrite. This is scripted.