British writer and occasional directer Richard Curtis has been a go-to guy for whimsical-wacky, character-driven sitcoms and rom-coms over the last few decades. It began with television collaborations with actor/comedian Rowan Atkinson which blossomed forth the 1980s “Blackadder” series, followed by the man-child comedy “Mr. Bean,” the latter spun-off into numerous features about the mumbling buffoon (still a mainstay, including a brief appearance at the London 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony).
Later Curtis scripted numerous features, including “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” before also directing “Love Actually” ten years ago. His only other helming effort was the commercially unsuccessful, unfunny “Pirate Radio” in 2009.
Now, apparently for his last time behind the camera, Curtis has delivered a spritely, enjoyable comedy about a time-traveling family with a prodigal son in search of romance and fulfillment. Hugh Grant, Curtis’ oft used alter ego, has been replaced by Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (“Anna Karenina,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 & 2”), the son of Brendan Gleeson (“In Bruges,” “Troy“). He’s a wonderful actor whose graduation to leading man is a well delivered effort.
So, I’ve consumed enough time setting you up. Please, pull up a chair, tuck in your napkin, order a brew and peruse Curtis’s typical fixed menu offerings. You’ll be served an enjoyable romantic feast of shameless sentimental yet folksy, good-hearted adventure, with helpings of be-careful-what-you-wish-for and painful growth. Your table guests include the off-centered Lake family. Tim (Gleeson) is the newly-minted 21-year-old son of an eccentric dad (the charming Bill Nighy, a Curtis regular and always a fine actor) and an admirably innocent mum (Lindsay Duncan). There’s also simple-minded Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery) and Tim’s free spirited, chaotic, and sometimes destructive sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson).
Early in “About Time” comes the initial setup—that of the uncomfortably awkward talk that so many fathers dread having with their sons about the birds and the bees. This chat, of course, isn’t about sex at all. It about the Lake family quirt— that all its men are closet time travelers.
Ah, but there’s a catch! Some arbitrary rules and strict limitations. History can’t be changed, although Tim’s life and relationships can and will be altered. He can only go backwards before being snapped back to the present. He needs a dark, confined place and a strong determination to will himself to a different time. The lad can only journey within his own footsteps. And obviously any steps taken to correct a lovelorn situation (as in Tim’s first excursion kissing a girl at his family’s annual New Year party) might often go awry. Curtis makes most of these numerous sequences amusing, others, particularly those involving his sister, much more serious. Other lessons will be learned through the film’s slightly longish 123-minute length.
The shy lad’s coming of age begins with a summer fling with the lovely blonde Charlotte (Margot Robbie). Her every little comment and innuendo sends him into repeat jumps to retrofit their hard-to-start relationship, with Tim ultimately discovering that no matter what he does, his first love’s defeat is just around the corner.
With his move from Cornwall to London to train as a lawyer—”in search of a future and a girl friend” Tim’s narration informs us—he moves in with Harry (Tom Hollander), a distant, divorced, and downtrodden uncle, a sadistic playwright with actor issues. In his effort to assist Harry with ditsy, absent-minded actors (look for cameos by Richard E. Grant and the late Richard Griffiths in Harry’s play “A Guilty Man”), Tim learns he has sabotaged his own budding relationship with Mary (Rachel McAdams), a bespectacled, shy wallflower with a Kate Moss obsession who he had met on a blind date, since erased in Tim’s new time line. Director Curtis filmed that amusing romantic meet up in one of those all-lights-off restaurants, where he and Mary chit chatted for hours as a digital clock on the screen signified a lengthy meal and meaningful connection. Cute.
To rebuild his now non-existent relationship with Mary, the frazzled youngster grips his hands, jumps into the nearest wardrobe, and attempts to right his sinking ship. The escalating issues that complicate Tim’s ever-changing history with Mary brings forth an ever-growing ensemble of characters, including Tim’s offbeat best buddies Rory (Joshua McGuire) and Jay (Will Merrick), as well as Mary’s bff Joanna (Vanesse Kirby), and the darkness of Jimmy Kincade (Tom Hughes) as the black hole in Kit Kat’s life.
As calculated as the script is, it’s also quite clever and endearing, sprinkling an array of imaginative solutions for each new hiccup. Bad first sex? Missteps before Mary’s conservative parents? Picking the right Best Man so no one gets embarrassed by his toast? All confidently and comically solved.
“About Time,” with its abundance of overlapping dialogue, heartwarming and quirky characters, and the sharp, sincere observations that reveal a loving, bittersweet family dynamic, earns high marks. The soundtrack is centered by the incredible Ben Folds (one of my favorite artists), whose “The Luckiest” bookends the film and is used as its main musical theme. Maybe there are too many prostitute jokes and the time-traveling physics don’t make sense. In the end, it’s a charmer. For those of you who have liked Curtis’ previous rom-coms, come along for a lovely joyride.