If the premise of the latest from writer-director Richard Curtis (LOVE ACTUALLY) sounds like a gimmick, that's because it is. But it's a gimmick he doesn't beat into the ground, as he manages (as always) to draw out the heartbreaking and life-affirming feelings. Yes, the collective-cry master is back. Best known for his work as a writer of such grown-up romantic comedies as FOUR WEDDING AND A FUNERAL, NOTTHING HILL, the BRIDGET JONES filmes and WAR HORSE (scratch that last one, but he did write the film version), Curtis is a man who isn't afraid to tackle emotions, particularly in his male charaters.
In ABOUT TIME, there are actually two men fully in touch with their feelings: a son, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), and his father (Curtis mainstay Bill Nighy). And after Tim has had yet another lame year in his life and is reflecting upon it with his dad, Nighy reveals something about the men in their family, which is that they have the ability to go back in time. It has to be a specific moment in their life, so that you can change something you want to get right, and then you come back to the present and see if the results of the change are as you have intended. The time travel aspect of this film is a little shaky, but it's also not really the point.
This being a love story, Tim opts to use this ability to re-create his meeting with Mary (Rachel McAdams, who at this point should be a part of the Mt. Rushmore of romantic comedies), since the first few don't go exactly as planned. And once they've become a for-real couple, the film takes some interesting turns outside of the relationship, and Tim discovers the limits of his abilities. For example, if he goes back to a time before the birth of a child and someone changes the direction of one of the parent's lives, that child might never be born or it could be an entirely different child, forcing Tim to go back and set things back they way they originally happened. It sounds complicated, but the film makes it easy to understand.
And then there are certain unfortunate moments in life that have nothing to do with bad timing, such as illness. And soon Tim realizes that he's following in the footsteps of his father in more ways than one when it comes to using this gift to say hello to friends and family long gone. The other thing Tim can't change easily is a person's lack on interest in taking care of themselves. There are some scenes in ABOUT TIME with his sweet but troubled sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) that are quite moving. But after a while, the greatest lesson Tim learns is that living in the present and then reliving the exact moments as they happened is the greatest way to appreciate life.
Son of the great actor Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall (best know as Bill Weasley in the last two HARRY POTTER films) has just enough quirk to make us like him and recognize his nice balance of nerdy and appealing. McAdams isn't breaking much new ground here, although Curtis has given her enough strange personality traits to keep her slightly unpredictable. With this being a film about a guy who can go back in time to fix his mistakes, it essentially undercuts any real drama that might arise out of any situation. That doesn't make ABOUT TIME any less funny or charming, but it does make it a bit less interesting than some of Curtis' other work. Still, in a landscape that is presently free of any decent films about romance, it should inspire a fair amount of hand holding among couples.