Film Review: About Time


   The main enjoyment provided by About Time comes through reminding us what a remarkable and gloriously admirable film Groundhog Day truly is. Both operate around a similar premise but, whereas Harold Ramis’ screwball comedy is one of the true Hollywood greats, Richard Curtis’ most recent Bumblecore movie is an embarrassingly twee, condescending, laborious celebration of privilege and male entitlement. Rather than being the whimsical, romantic comedy it so clearly aspires to be, About Time acts as a public safety warning against the type of person who would, with no self-awareness, describe themselves as a "nice guy".

   Domnhall Gleeson stars  as Tim - a rich, white, handsome, upper class, heterosexual male with hereditary powers (he's hardly an underdog). Tim, it is revealed, like all the males in his family, possesses a secret ability to travel back throughout the course of his own lifetime so as to alter events from the past (and consequently, the future).

   Pleasant Tim, a self described nice guy, decides there would be nothing nicer than to use his new-found powers for the selfish pursuit of contriving situations in his favour so women will find him attractive and sleep with him. Like a bumbling school boy, the 21 year old quickly falls for a brace of women, one of whom is smiley American Mary (Rachel McAdams) and the other of whom's main character trait is that she is not. Tim sets about his attempts to seduce the two ladies through deception, manipulation and outright lies using information he has gleaned through nefarious means. But, although this sound morally askew, we're not to make judgements, I assume, as Tim is a "nice guy".

   When Bill Murray tries to manipulate Andie McDowell in Groundhog Day into falling for him, it simply doesn’t work - nothing he does can make her love him until he, in his heart, changes. It is only when Murray learns to be a better man that he becomes a person deserving of love, deserving of the woman he has learned he pines for. Whilst Groundhog Day and Annie Hall, two of the most acclaimed romantic comedies of all time, show us that spontaneity can’t be faked, About Time tries to challenge this – “if real attraction and chemistry doesn’t exist, force it”!* In About Time the valuable lesson our hero learns is that grooming and manipulation pay off – he never lets his wife into the secret of their early courtship; he lies and withholds information to appear to be something he is not, he travels back in time to split her up from a new boyfriend she could have been happy spending her life with, their whole romance is founded on a contrived web of lies.

   Tim is simply deplorable in his actions but, unlike Murray who begins life as clearly amoral, he is never presented as such in Curtis’ incredibly creepy world. Curtis is a man who has never been troubled by the intricacies of human interaction or, indeed, real emotion. He buries saccharine inanities deep into his movies in the hope we don't question his characters. When Tim decides to emancipate his sister Kit Kat from a relationship with someone who isn't a "nice guy", it seems rather hypocritical of Curtis to ask us to root for the posh young man in light of all of his immoral actions we've just seen him commit.

  Ultimately, About Time illustrates that Tim and Curtis the film-maker aren’t too dissimilar – both are evil puppet-masters looking to cynically manipulate the emotions of others for their own needs. Tim, pretty much given the power to play God, uses his great power with no responsibility. His blessing is used to have sex with a woman he finds attractive because, you know, he really likes her. His self-entitlement is like one of the “nice guys of Ok Cupid”. Curtis' attempts to control his audiences emotions, however, are equally as contrived and offensive.

   Like all Curtis films, the plot stacks romantic and melodramatic short-hands and clich├ęs on top of each other, one after another, with the aim of battering his audience into emotional submission – if Curtis does manage to inspire tears he doesn’t earn them as much as bully them out of the audience. It’s frankly aggressive in its approach. Curtis, a man who can never be accused of being troubled with nuances, doesn’t seem to trust that his audience will understand, or perhaps that his plot will illuminate, the moral of the story either – “life is awesome!” – so relies on clunkily hammering it home with a voice over. There’s a famous maxim in screenwriting: “Show, don’t tell”. Curtis is a writer who decides that it’s not enough to restrict himself to simply showing or telling and, instead, does both. Repeatedly.

   On a geekier, pedantic level the time travel element of the film is ludicrous and maddeningly inconsistent. There’s butterfly effects… except when there are not. Men can only travel backwards... except when they can go forward. Only the men in the family can time travel... except when the plot necessitates women should possess this power too. If Richard Curtis decrees it would be easier to ignore Butterfly Effects, out they go – why bother creating an internal logic in Curtis-land when it’s easy to discard so as to run to the next cloying set piece with no worries? This may seem like a relatively small concern but it highlights a much bigger issue -if Curtis has no regard for his own films, why should we, the audience, care either?

* This point wrings true of most of Curtis’ film-making tactics – if real emotion can’t be gained, force them!
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