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About Time review: creep trick

About Time yellow light Rachel McAdams Domhnall Gleeson

Arbitrary and inconsistent rules of time travel in aid of creepy romantic manipulation and temporal stalking. But hey, at least it’s got Bill Nighy!
I’m “biast” (pro): have mostly enjoyed Richard Curtis’s other films

I’m “biast” (con): the trailer did not bode well

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Turns out I’m a geek first, and feminist second. Because I’m way more bothered by the arbitrary and inconsistent rules of time travel in Richard Curtis’s mushy sci-fantasy romance than I am by the deep levels of creepy manipulation and temporal stalking it is in narrative aid of. I mean, what else is new? Teh Movies do not like women very much — we know this. But can’t it at least get the nerd stuff right? Damn.

Time travel is a cheap pervy trick for Tim (Domhnall Gleeson: Anna Karenina, Dredd), who discovers on his 21st birthday that, merely by wishing it, he can jump back to moments in his own past and relive them… or do them over again. It’s a talent that the men in his family all share, Tim learns from Dad, who seems to be using this ability to read as many books as possible. (Which kinda doesn’t make any sense, because it’s not like all the jumping around gives you more time. How can it make any difference whether you can go through Tuesday twice just to finish reading the latest Harry Potter? You’ve still used up two days of your life getting to the end.) Because Dad is the unfathomably awesome Bill Nighy (The World’s End, Jack the Giant Slayer), he rolls his eyes at Tim’s declaration that he shall use this amazing gift to “get a girlfriend,” cuz, yeah, that’s kind of offensive and maybe a tad abusive.

But writer-director Curtis (The Boat That Rocked, Love Actually) is committed to convincing us that it’s charming and totes adorbs, how Tim uses his power to fool women into thinking he’s smooth and considerate — easy peasy when you have the benefit of hindsight and can avoid physical and conversational pitfalls the second (or fifth) time around. Curtis also wants us to know that it’s swoon-inducing romantic that this is how he makes Mary (poor Rachel McAdams: Passion, The Vow) fall in love with him. He tricks her and manipulates her — as when his advanced knowledge of the things she is passionate about, gleaned from previous conversations that only he remembers and now haven’t actually happened for her at all, leads her to believe that they are simpatico. (Mary never catches on to what her boyfriend and later husband is up to. That’s unspeakably awful.) It’s almost exactly what Bill Murray does to Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, except we were supposed to see Murray as a creepazoid for it, and he eventually learns that such manipulation doesn’t work and that spontaneous connection and attraction cannot be forced. Tim here learns the precise opposite, and we’re meant to be delighted for him. Look! He got a girlfriend. Aww.

As I said, however, none of that irks me as much as how Tim’s time travel works. Curtis’s rules shift constantly based on the needs of his script, which is mostly designed to drive events toward the most mawkishly sentimental ending possible. At first it seems that once Tim travels back in time, he has to stay there and live through all those hours and days again in order to get back to where he jumped from… but later, and without any indication that this could be possible, he’s jumping forwards in time as well after he redoes whatever needs redoing. It’s not even as if this has been held in reserve, to deliver a twist or a surprise to us — nope, it’s almost as if the movie shrugs at our confusion and says, “What, I never said Tim couldn’t do that.” When Tim travels back in time and changes things, it’s completely random how these changes ripple through his life… well, it’s not random, in fact: it’s based solely on how Curtis needs to move the plot. He might as well just have Tim wave some fairy dust around. Oh! And then, again without any warning, Tim can go back years and years in time and undo major changes, and everything shifts back to the way it was before, which really shouldn’t happen when it’s already been established that tiny changes can have a big, unknown impact. That’s the butterfly effect, and Dad warns Tim about it, and we see it in action… until Tim needs it not to be a problem. *grrrr*

I know, I know: the time-travel stuff is just a metaphor for figuring out life ’n’ shit. But when it’s deployed so sloppily in the furtherance of actions that are not very nice, it raises my geek dander.

All that said, however, all the secondary characters are an absolute blast. Nighy, of course, is worth seeking out in just about anything. But there’s also Tom Hollander (Hanna, The Soloist) as a cranky, nasty playwright friend of Tim’s, Lydia Wilson (Never Let Me Go) as Tim’s spirited but troubled sister, Lindsay Duncan (Alice in Wonderland, Doctor Who) as Tim’s down-to-earth mother, and Richard Cordery (Les Misérables) as Tim’s slightly odd but very nice uncle. I enjoyed spending time with all of them, and if I could, I would hop back to when Curtis was writing this and tell him to make the film all about them.

US/Canada release date: Nov 8 2013 | UK release date: Sep 4 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated TTS (contain time-travel stalking)
MPAA: rated R for language and some sexual content
BBFC: rated 12A (contains infrequent strong language and moderate sex references)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • RogerBW

    Oh well. I try to hold out hope… but maybe Curtis only had the one Love, Actually in him.

  • CB

    Seems like the take-away message is: Skip this, watch Groundhog Day again.

  • PeterMcPumpkin

    Need romance and time travel? Neither do I.

  • Drave

    I have to give the movie some credit at least for having his first encounter with Mary be completely natural. I mean, they clearly do immediately have a connection. He won her over just by being his natural self, but then he accidentally erased the date in order to help his roommate, and then he is desperately (and lazily) trying to recreate the connection he knows exists. Somehow the fact that the potential is already there makes his behavior slightly less creepy. (Only slightly, though!) I wish the movie had been more clever about him finding less creepy ways to reconnect, and I wish it had more clearly established the time travel rules.

  • Dave S

    And you left out the biggest plot mistake of all !!. When Tim’s father explains to him that he can travel in time, he makes it explicitly clear that you can only travel back to events that you were directly involed in. Then no more than 15 minutes later Tim travels back to a party HE DID NOT ATTEND in order to meet Mary again. At that point the concept lost me. I understand suspending belief to enjoy a movie but that went beyond lazy.

  • GibbRS

    I’m not excusing the plot holes of the film, but this part was actually pretty clear in the film. **SPOILERS** remember when he’s sitting at the coffee table with Mary and her friend, he gets the address of the party where Mary and that other dude meet. He then goes back in time and walks over to the party location. He doesn’t go back directly to the party.

  • GibbRS

    Well said. This really is the main saving grace of the entire movie, that Tim and Mary’s first encounter was natural and pleasant.

    **spoilers** I was REALLY irked by the fact that he manipulated Mary into liking him a second time, especially because he essentially used time travel to break up a relationship, but the fact that he did meet her naturally previously made it easier to stomach… a little bit.

  • GibbRS

    The film is worth watching, if only for the relationship between Tim and his father.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    The best part about the movie isn’t the romance, although that is sweet.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    This was worth watching more than once.