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'About Time' Review: The Minutes Drag Like Hours in This Mawkish Time-Travel Romance

6/13/2014

By Alonso Duralde
TheWrap

We had a deal with Richard Curtis. He would write charming, eccentric, lively characters who would speak in brilliantly witty and self-deprecating one-liners. In turn, we would feel less guilty about getting wet-eyed over high-fructose sappy moments like Julia Roberts just a girl standing in front of a boy speech in Notting Hill or Hugh Grants sopping declaration of love in Four Weddings and a Funeral or the Heathrow arrivals montage in Love Actually.

This time Curtis lets us down: theres plenty of sap in About Time, but not nearly enough of his signature stringent wit to cut through the goo.

Theres also the issue of Hugh Grant Separation Anxiety: Grants star quality (crossed with the big screens most adorable stammer since Jimmy Stewart) elevated those earlier Curtis vehicles, and without his signature star, Curtis tries to fake it with actor Domhnall Gleeson, who acts and narrates in what comes off as an eerie approximation.

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Its like watching Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity or Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda or any other actor in a Woody Allen movie who starts mimicking his directors cadences. Every Gosh and blink recalls Grant, although to be fair to Gleeson (who played Bill Weasley in the last two Harry Potter movies) it may just be that Curtis only knows how to write and direct one kind of romantic lead, no matter whos performing it.

Gleeson plays Tim, a too thin, too tall, too orange lad who lives on the shore in Cornwall with his eccentric parents (Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan), mums brother Uncle Desmond (Richard Cordery) and sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). All seems relatively normal, until Tim turns 21, at which point his father informs him of an unusual legacy: All the men in the family have the power to travel through time.

The rules are basic: All Tim has to do is go into a small dark space and ball up his fists, and he can revisit places and times in which he was already alive. Its a skill he immediately uses to mend social situations (going back to New Years Eve to kiss the girl whos smitten with him rather than awkwardly shaking her hand), but he decides to save it for when he can find the love of his life.

She turns out to be Mary (Rachel McAdams, whos already been down this road, sort of, by playing The Time Travelers Wife). Tim and Mary have a meet-cute (in one of those restaurants where you eat in pitch darkness), but when Tim goes back in time to fix an awful opening night for playwright pal Harry (Tom Hollander), their meal never happens and he has to arrange a whole new meeting with Mary.

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Curtis doesnt get too bogged down in the mechanics of time travel and quantum physics and whatnot; the whole gimmick is there to lead the film to its ultimate message about appreciating each golden moment and living in the now and such. Thats a moral that perfectly fits this era of staring at screens, but Curtis fails to leaven his sentimentality with the comedy for which he has become known.

By the time Tims narration blatantly spells out the message, and goes for some third-act father-son tearjerker moments for good measure, its too late to suddenly care about these vague outlines of characters. The rap that Curtis detractors have laid on his previous hits was that they were full of gleaming posh quip machines; Ive been a fan of his work up until now, but it turns out that leaving out the quips wasnt such a hot idea.

About Time is beautiful to look at, with its seaside estates and its rain-soaked weddings and besotted characters being lovely to one another, but its a treacly greeting card coming from someone whose love letters used to have a little more bite.

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