Richard Curtis, the reigning king of romantic comedies, may have titled this movie About Time, but we all know that the real subject is going to be love. The refreshing thing about the man behind such modern classics of the genre as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones' Diary, Notting Hill, and Love Actually is that he knows that we know, and has his lead character admit exactly that in the film's opening minutes.
The movie stars Domhnall Gleeson as Tim Lake, the only son of a retired professor (Bill Nighy) who informs his dearest boy on his 21st birthday that the men in the Lake family possess the ability to travel back in time -- never forward -- to any point in their lives, do things differently, and change their history. Tim immediately knows that, while he could use this ability to amass wealth or power, he plans to use it for love. On a blind date -- literally, their meeting occurs at a restaurant that serves meals in absolute pitch blackness -- he is introduced to Mary (Rachel McAdams), and smitten Tim uses all of his charm and time-jumping tenacity to win her heart.
Even if you didn't know going in that this was a Richard Curtis movie, it's clear from the opening moments. It has his signature witty banter, a colorful cast of supporting players, and an obsession with love in its many forms -- romantic, parental, sibling, etc. For the first hour it's easy to be charmed by Gleeson: He has a knack for the way Curtis structures his jokes, and while he may not have the foppish, repressed vibe that made Hugh Grant a superstar in Four Weddings, he does have an earnestness that's not at all cloying. He's easy to like, and Nighy is easy to love (as always) as he plays the wise dad who knows the pitfalls of time travel but understands that his son has to figure them out on his own.
However, once the movie has exhausted all of the unexpected repercussions that can occur from changing your past, the story runs out of steam. The last 30 minutes are a total bore because there is nothing at stake for Tim. Both he and the audience have already absorbed the film's lesson -- that living and loving in the moment is more important than anything else -- so watching him do that, with all the expected joy and pain, is superfluous.
It's understandable, and not at all unwelcome, to see Curtis revert to familiar territory after the misfire of Pirate Radio. But for all its little pleasures, About Time just adds a level of magical realism to his typical themes that doesn't make love feel any more magical or any more real.