Thursday, October 31, 2013

When the whimsy gets serious

About Time delivers its message with unfortunate directness.
Richard Curtis has what many filmmakers crave, a highly identifiable brand. The 56-year-old writer/director authored the screenplays for much-loved movies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. He also wrote and directed Love, Actually, an ensemble romantic comedy that has acquired Christmas treat status.

If there's a secret to Curtis's success, it might be this: He has been able to temper his tendency toward unabashed sentiment with ample amounts of wit, most of it emanating from cleverly written dialogue delivered by actors who know how to make the most of it.

Now comes About Time, a movie that seems a bit more treacly than Curtis's previous efforts and which virtually bathes itself in end-of-picture sentiment -- all in the service of delivering an exhortative seize-the-day message.

This time, Curtis tries his hand at fantasy, adding a time-travel wrinkle to the usual mix.

Domhnall Gleeson, familiar as one of the Weasleys from the Harry Potter movies, plays Tim, a 21-year-old, aspiring lawyer whose father (Curtis veteran Bill Nighy) shares a family secret with him. It seems the men in Tim's family have the ability to travel backward in time -- but only through their own lives.

This peculiar gift, exercised in closets by clenching one's fists and focusing on the moment one wishes to relive, gives the astonished young man an opportunity for do-overs when he messes up. The awkward, bumbling Tim has only one goal: finding true love, and he sometimes needs more than one attempt to strike up a relationship.

The eventual object of Tim's affections is book editor Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American woman he meets in a restaurant devoted to blind dates -- literally. Willing singles meet in the dark, and don't see each other until they leave the restaurant.

I suppose we're meant to find this and other such scenes charming in a quirky sort of way, but Tim's ability to time-travel turns out to be a bit of cheat: If his first sexual encounter with Mary lights no fireworks, he simply re-does it until both are left limp from shared pleasure.

I chose to see About Time for one reason: Nighy. Nighy who played an unrepentant rocker in Love, Actually, has the ability to make roguishness appealing. He does what he can with the role of a father who has devoted his time-travel to massive bouts of reading. He also enjoys playing ping pong with the son he clearly loves.

It's a bit odd to say, but these father/son dynamics come closer to satisfying the movie's emotional demands than the evolving relationship between Tim and Mary.

But Nighy and some intermittent charm aren't quite enough to push About Time onto the plus side of the ledger -- and I say this as a critic who, unlike many of my colleagues, still falls prey to the charms of Love, Actually.

This time, though, I found the eccentricities a bit forced, the charms, only intermittent and the movie's message (live every day as if it were your last) all too easy.

But wait. Maybe the movie's right. Be kind. Find your soul mate. Seize the day. Enough of this crap, I'm off to spread the love.

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