Starting in the late ’90s, there was a cute trendlet of romantic dramas — movies like Sliding Doors (1998) and Kate & Leopold (2001) — that took off from premises right out of science-fiction fantasy. Only the films, in spirit, weren’t sci-fi; they were closer to sweet fables of destiny. Richard Curtis’ About Time is a movie in that tradition. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), handsome in a gawky way, comes from a nice, comfortable British family (they’ve got a great house by the sea), and he has no serious worries, except that he’s a romantic fumbler. On New Year’s Eve, a girl is eager to kiss him, and instead he reaches out to shake her hand.
Clearly he needs to work on his game, and he gets his chance when his retired-professor father (Bill Nighy) summons him on his 21st birthday to reveal a major secret: The men in their family have the ability to go back in time. All Tim has to do is clench his fists, think of the moment he wants to return to — and, voilà, he’s there. He can revisit any point in his life that didn’t work out and redo it to his design. He starts by going back to that New Year’s Eve party and kissing that girl. What’s not to like?
Curtis, the acclaimed screenwriter (Notting Hill) and director (Love Actually), is a wistfully grounded romantic, and in About Time he treats his supernatural hook as casually as possible, to make us believe Yes, that’s just what it would be like. Tim’s dad warns him to use his gift modestly — not, for instance, to acquire wealth with it — and Tim learns that he can’t make someone fall in love with him. But he can guide the process, and that’s what he does with Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American he connects with at a London theme restaurant. About Time is about their courtship, their marriage, and what happens after they’re parents, with Tim secretly using his power to steer events.
Is there a downside to his ability? Not much of one, and that may be why About Time, after an enchanting first half, settles into a mode of anecdotal family soap opera — wish fulfillment bumping up against life’s problems, sometimes solving them, sometimes not — that is more affectionate than dramatic. Gleeson and McAdams make a touching, lifelike couple, but by the time the movie starts telling us to live each day as if we were going back and doing it all over again, you may feel Curtis has mistaken hokum for wisdom. B