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About Time
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Running Bore That Gathers Some Moss After All"
2 stars

"About Time" is the kind of film that has a premise that sounds so potentially charming in theory that it takes a little while to realize how creepy and unsettling it actually is in practice. Lord knows that it tries to cover up its more unsettling aspects by lulling viewers with glib humor, jerked tears and a soundtrack consisting of one on-the-nose music cue after another and for all I know, audiences may be perfectly willing to go along with the various manipulations. Hell, even I was willing to go along with it for a little bit but after a while, I found myself actively resenting its vaguely distasteful blend of cloying sentiment and oppressive whimsy more than anything else

Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is an amiable goof living in Cornwall who, on his 21st birthday, is let in on an astonishing secret by his seemingly ordinary and mild-mannered father (Bill Nighy)--as a result of some genetic quirk that the film wisely never bothers to explain at length, all of the male members of their family have the ability to travel through time. All they have to do is go to some quiet place like a closet, concentrate on a specific event in their own lives and poof, they are there. (Also, you can't do something like kill Hitler and since money cannot buy happiness, you probably shouldn't bother with trying to make yourself rich either.) At first, Tim assumes that this is just a goof but it turns out to be the truth and he begins to use his powers to correct embarrassing social faux pas and to help him score with women (though even time-travel can only do so much for him in regards to the latter).

Tom eventually moves to London to begin a career as a lawyer and while out one night at a trendy restaurant in which the diners eat in total darkness (hint--don't order the kebabs or saganaki), he has a meet-super-cute with Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American working as a publisher's reader. They hit it off spectacularly but Tom was supposed to be somewhere else that night and when he uses his power to correct the disaster that ensued from his absence (in what is arguably the film's funniest sequence), his encounter with Mary never happens as a result. Using his knowledge gleaned from that one meeting, he contrives to meet her again and after a couple of hiccups (including a long detour at an art exhibition dedicated to Kate Moss that is alleviated only slightly by the fact that it includes a lot of Kate Moss), they eventually become a couple. The rest of the film follows Tom as he marries and starts his own family while using his power to savor the good times and correct the bad (as much as possible) while growing an appreciation for the precious and finite nature of time and existence, no matter how much he may be able to manipulate it.

On the surface, "About Time" sounds cute enough and if you don't put too much thought into its admittedly delicate premise, there is an excellent chance that you will find it to be as adorable as it clearly believes itself to be. Alas, I was putting too much thought into it and after a while, all I could see was the dark and unsettling side to the proceedings. The problem is that at no time in the proceedings does Tom ever make Mary aware of his to travel through time. This may not sound like much but it means that their entire relationship is based in large part on an untruth--their apparent immediate compatibility is based entirely on his going back and correcting past mistakes using the information he has gleaned from his earlier attempts at charming her--casts a pall on the proceedings that I simply couldn't ignore. It isn't as though he is forbidden to tell her about his ability--at one point, he even takes his troubled younger sister (Lydia Wilson) on a trip back to help her sort out her problems--and so his reluctance to come clean adds a layer of creepiness of material that clashes uneasily with everything else and which I found difficult to ignore. Both Gleeson and McAdams are likable enough (though I suspect the latter signed on only so that when someone told her "Hey, I liked that movie where you played the time travelers wife," she could cheerfully answer "Which one?") but that almost makes it worse in a weird way.

"About Time" was written and directed by Richard Curtis, the man behind the likes of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually," and fans of those films will certainly find a number of familiar elements on display--endearingly nebbishy male protagonists who unaccountably come across as catnip to American women, a depiction of urban life so sanitized in its presentation of race and class that makes the films of Woody Allen seem raw and gritty by comparison, an endless array of montages and a soundtrack crammed with tunes that seem to be doing most of the narrative heavy lifting at times (with cult rocker Nick Cave no doubt receiving the biggest boost at iTunes thanks to the canny deployment of . In the past, I have liked his work to varying degrees (I even have some lingering affection for "Love Actually" even though I haven't actually seen it in a decade) but this time around, the formula just doesn't work. The jokes, for the most part, don't pop (although there are a few scattered laughs) while the dramatic aspects try way too hard to inspire deep emotions from viewers without ever really earning them. Furthermore, he violates what should be an iron-clad rule of filmmaking: if you are going to make a movie that tries to convey a message about the fleeting nature of time and how important it is to make the most of what you have been given, you should probably not let it run more than two hours.

"About Time" wants to be a jumbo-sized crowd pleaser in the worst possible way and for the most part, it does just that. It has its moments and for those who can somehow accept or simply ignore the dark undercurrent that inadvertently throws everything else out of whack, it will no doubt come across as an ideal example of genial, non-threatening moviemaking at its most pleasantly bland--the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. It has the germ of a good idea but Curtis doesn't really develop it in a good idea. If only he had the ability to go back in time--he could have jumped back, reworked the screenplay so that it would take advantage of its central gimmick while at the same time dealing with all of the potentially intriguing implications that he brings up and then abandons and come back with a film that turned out the be the modern-day romantic classic that it so desperately wants to be. Barring that, he could have at least brought back Kate Moss for some more fun.

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originally posted: 11/01/13 08:37:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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  01-Nov-2013 (R)
  DVD: 04-Feb-2014

  04-Sep-2013 (12A)

  17-Oct-2013 (M)
  DVD: 04-Feb-2014

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