I'm not complaining, but when it comes to screenings of the fall/winter movies, I become selective when it comes to choosing the movies that I see and cover. Because Ain't It Cool News is what it is, I normally have to forgo some movies for others; I tend to to see the genre movies ahead of other movies because frankly, that's what the readership is more interested in. Because I not only write for AICN, but have a family, have other work responsibilities, and as full a life that I can squeeze in between, some movies get missed. So I missed the press screening for ABOUT TIME, and figured it would be one I'd catch up to when it made it to Blu-Ray, or hopefully an awards screener which I also get towards the end of the year. I realize that this is all First World Problem sounding, but it's my life. I make choices, choices I don't regret, and the tapestry weaves itself as it will.
I missed ABOUT TIME's screening because my daughter had a swim meet. She hates it. Well, hate is probably a strong word, but she'd certainly rather be doing other things, but I'm happy that shes's sticking with it. On the way from work to the meet, which was approximately in the orbit of Venus, judging by how long the commute was taking, my "colorful metaphors" as I screamed at traffic to get the hell out of my way were making my wife laugh. I hate traffic, I hated the inconvenience of the drive, hated that I was missing a screening, and I was letting the world (inside my car) know about it. We eventually got to the meet, and we sat down and watched my daughter finish last in her race, as she has consistently since she's started being on the team.
I'm not one of those parents who really cares if my daughter wins or not. I'm glad she makes the effort, but there are more important things in life than winning. But as I watched her afterwards get into the pool and try to master her dive so she can get more of those precious inches in the race, some friends came over and helped her get her balance, helped her get over her fear of diving, and even though she wasn't racing at the time, she finally got enough muscle memory going so that she was able to dive into the water with grace and speed. And I immediately began to regret some of the things I said in the car, and this became one of those Moments that every parent stores away, in the Memory Theater, to take out from time to time and just revel in it. It's a little thing, but it's a Big Thing. And as these Big Things build up, the connective tissue of life surrounds them, and the Story reveals itself to all of us as it happens.
Some days afterwards other local and online film critics asked me if I'd seen ABOUT TIME yet, and when I said I hadn't, they looked at me appraisingly and said, "Yeah, you need to go." I'm glad those critics held their cards and didn't reveal much about the movie, because Richard Curtis's ABOUT TIME floored me in the ways that my favorite films do, and I was unprepared for the movie that I got versus the movie that I expected. I know LOVE ACTUALLY is a beloved movie by many people, and I don't begrudge them, but while I like the movie, it never really clicked into that holy place, not like Curtis's scripts for FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL or NOTTING HILL did. Many of my friends also know that when it comes to certain subjects, I'm especially sensitive. I've been accused of being overly sentimental, an allegation that's probably accurate. Maybe I'm an easy lay when it comes to that sort of thing in films. I cry a lot at movies. I have no regrets about it. It's as part of me as breathing and I experience cinema on a very visceral level.
So when ABOUT TIME reveals the kind of film it is about halfway through, when it shows its true face, a face that was different than the marketing that preceded the movie, I was not prepared. And ABOUT TIME becomes all about that tapestry of life that we weave, and living a life without regret and taking joy in the simple things that make a life. Enjoying the story of you that unfolds as it does to you. I don't envy the marketing department at Universal in trying to sell this movie, and if this weekend's box office is any indication, ABOUT TIME will probably quietly disappear from cinemas in a week or so. There's probably nothing for it, because what this movie has to say, the themes that it goes into, can't really be encapsulated in a two minute trailer or 30 second TV spot. It doesn't have a Clooney, a Bullock, or a Marvel superhero in it, and ABOUT TIME explores sensitive territory that a trailer simply can't address. And yet, there's a beautiful purity to ABOUT TIME, an earned sentimentality that never feels syrupy or forced, that makes me think that when I look back on 2013 in cinema, ABOUT TIME will be one of those movies that made me happy to be alive. I sense that could be true for many audiences that see it.
21-year-old Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), on the day after New Year's, is taken aside by his father (the transcendent Bill Nighy) and has a bombshell dropped on him - the men in his family have always had the ability to travel through time, and Tim has it too. They can't escape the confines of their own life, and they can only travel backwards (and return to the moment they left), so they can't use it to change world history. But Tim can use it to change key moments in his own life, and Tim naturally uses it to get a better social life, especially a girlfriend. His dad tells Tim not to use it to get rich ("It'll just make you miserable") but to use it to live to the fullest. It's through this ability that Tim is able to make a connection to Mary (Rachel McAdams), and builds a life with her. As life does, unexpected moments happen, and Tim doesn't use his ability to avoid them, or to radically change things, but to explore his connections with his family and the people he loves, such as his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), who is struggling with alcoholism and abuse.
But Curtis also does something very subtle as the movie progresses, and once we realize what ABOUT TIME is doing, the poignancy and power of the film become deep and resonant. ABOUT TIME isn't a romantic comedy as we define the term - that's simply to get people in seats, really - but Curtis has always been wonderful at getting to the heart of relationships, be it with family or with significant others. ABOUT TIME isn't quite IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE in sentiment, but Curtis is slowly building an emotional base, so that when the moments come, they feel as earned and powerful as they should. The final 45 minutes of ABOUT TIME left me a wreck. Curtis orchestrates emotion like a master conductor, and I was swept away in it. There are movies that definitely have triggers for me, like FIELD OF DREAMS, or E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and when ABOUT TIME goes into those places, I was profoundly moved.
The performances are wonderful - Gleeson is our surrogate through the movie, and he's likable and funny, and when ABOUT TIME goes deeper, his work here becomes rich and rewarding. Rachel McAdams is lovely as well, and you could see why any man would alter time to be with her. Bill Nighy, though, is the true emotional center of ABOUT TIME's second half. He is understated and subtle, and flat-out brilliant, approaching the material with restraint and sensitivity. Across the board, everyone does great work, including Lindsay Duncan as Tim's mom and Tom Hollander as Tim's playwright uncle. Curtis's usual fantastic soundtrack works wonders too, with songs by Ben Folds, Nick Cave, and Paul Buchanan that help build the emotion.
Of course, some will reject the movie's sentimentality, and to those, all I really have to say is that Curtis doesn't force treacle down your throat. This is a natural progression of emotion, and Curtis knows when to use humor to accentuate the moment. This is a personal statement for Richard Curtis, and it feels like a philosophical moment in his career, where Curtis takes stock in his career thus far. While ABOUT TIME isn't a Grand Statement about love and family, Richard Curtis is exploring themes that are obviously important to him. Because he fills ABOUT TIME with his own personal passion, people may take away something different.
But ABOUT TIME is from the heart, and Richard Curtis's very best film. We build our own Memory Theater, taking each moment and carefully storing it away, and some moments we may look back with regret, or sadness, or joy. But these moments are our own Story. ABOUT TIME is about each of those moments, and the infinite value they have to each one of us, and how they inform and create the person that we are. This is one of my favorite movies of the year.