Call me a terrible person, but I didn't cry during 12 Years a Slave. Though deeply moved by one of the year's strongest dramas, something about its august intensity appealed more to intellect than raw emotion. I didn't lose it at the cathartic, nerve-rattling end of Captain Phillips. I was dry-eyed when the credits rolled on the sad and soulful Dallas Buyers Club. All are good movies, ones likely, and rightfully, to be showered with awards in the coming months, but none of them teased out the big, blubbery feelings that one sometimes goes to the movies looking to access. Thank god, then, for About Time, a decidedly goopy but downright wonderful little film about some rather large things.
About Time comes to us from Richard Curtis, that almost insidiously talented purveyor of the kind of British charm, sparkle, and wistfulness that certain among us crave like a drug. Emma Thompson quietly acting the roof off the place while listening to Joni Mitchell in Love Actually? That's him. John Hannah reading an Auden poem at the titular funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral? Curtis again, as a screenwriter at least. This dastardly fellow knows just how to send us (me?) into blissful fits of giddy elation — crafting perfect English worlds that are somehow both polished to a bright shine and wonderfully odd and idiosyncratic — before piercing our hearts with some defiantly graceful bit of sadness or broadly life-affirming insight. He's cruel, in a way, so callously playing our heartstrings. But he's so forgivable, as ultimately warm and big-hearted as his movies are. And in many ways, About Time represents the pinnacle of his particular abilities.
Before you freak out, Love Actually is still a darling Christmas classic that will be watched in my house at least once a year. But About Time takes itself a bit more seriously and narrows its view, or rather redirects it, and in so doing encompasses bigger themes, and strikes at deeper meaning. The film has largely been marketed as a romantic comedy, and for a stretch of the film it is just that. Wiry beanpole Domhnall Gleeson plays Tim, a young man on a quest for love, first with his sister's bombshell friend who comes to stay at the family's eye-poppingly beautiful seaside estate in Cornwall, and then with the bright-eyed American girl he meets-cute while working as a lawyer (solicitor? barrister? who the heck knows) in London. That girl, named Mary, is played by Rachel McAdams, making her second appearance in a time travel romance. Oh! Right! I should mention that shortly after his 21st birthday, Tim's father (Bill Nighy, wearing the role like a perfectly cut but slightly rumpled suit) informs him that the men in his family have the ability to go back in time, though only to moments that they've experienced in their own lives. So the clever trick of Tim and Mary's courtship is that the bumbling, lovestruck Tim can go back and fix mistakes he's made along the way. And while that perhaps poses some ethical and logistical questions, the conceit gently and slyly eases us into the movie's own clever trick.
The film, you see, isn't really a romantic comedy. It is, in fact, a movie about the entirety of life — the enjoyment of it, the swiftness of it, the sprawl and meander and chance of it all. That may sound corny, and it is! But wonderfully so. We watch as Tim goes from uncertain young man to uncertain married man to uncertain family man, aching and swooning montages chronicling the passage of time, all the while realizing that the uncertainty is what makes the journey worth it. Though Tim can pop back into moments past and rearrange things a bit, there's nothing to be done about the future, one simply has to try to enjoy the ride as best as one can. There's not much of a main plot in About Time, just as there isn't in most lives. Instead, like life, the film is a series of events both profound and silly, all handled with Curtis's winning dexterity and surprising understatement. His writing is elegant and sharp, the performances all lived-in and witty. I like this movie very much, you guys.
It will not be for everyone. Some will find it treacly and ungainly. Others will wonder why we should care about these affluent yuppies and their bourgie concerns. A few nerds will perhaps gripe about the questionable rules and mechanics of the film's version of time travel. But for that certain set, and I'd hope you know who you are by now, About Time will strike the same chord it did in me, the one that had me a weeping mess for, oh, the final 20 minutes or so of the film. Curtis's observations and urgings may be simple — try to enjoy the present moment, be grateful for what you have, be awed at the inherent wonder and beauty of what so often seems mundane — but the film offers them up so kindly and wisely that their simplicity only proves how vitally true they are. About Time is a bittersweet marvel of a tearjerker, and is, I'm not ashamed to admit, perhaps my favorite movie of the season so far. Not necessarily the best, mind you. Just the one I love the most.
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