Writer and director Richard Curtis has made a career out of making films about love: falling in love, falling out of love, first dates, heartbreaks, and everything in between. About Time takes a slightly different approach to the subject, by combining a time travel-based romantic comedy with a story about the importance of family and living your life to the fullest. It's the latter part of the film that really makes About Time stand out from all of the rom-coms in his repertoire, and its release is perfectly timed to give audiences a warm, fuzzy feeling to combat the family conflicts that rear their heads around the holidays. Think of it as Curtis' answer to August: Osage County.
After a disastrous New Years party, the endearingly awkward Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family have the ability to travel through time. As with all time travel films, the rules are laid out from the beginning: Tim can only go into his own past, never to the future, everything he changes in the past causes a change in the future, and he must go into a small, dark space in order for the travelling to work – although, some of these rules get bent or even broken over the course of the film in order to better suit the narrative that Curtis wants to tell. And so, with that instruction, Tim is off, intending to use his power to find the love of his life.
The first half of the film is typical rom-com fare, instilled with enough wit and warmth to make it stand up to Curtis' other films. Gleeson is wonderfully charming, selling both the awkwardness and the humor of the failed courting of his sister's friend, Charlotte (Margot Robbie). Of course, once that goes terribly wrong, it's only a matter of time before he meets-cute with Mary (Rachel McAdams) on a blind date, and woos her, only to lose her... and then win her back through the graces of his gift. The film never addresses the implications of Tim using his power to manipulate Mary, leaving the morality in the formation of their relationship a bit of a grey area. However, McAdams and Gleeson do a good enough job of portraying their growing love that it's easy to push those tricky issues out of your head... at least until the credits roll.
As Mary, McAdams is capable and charming, and carries the role the best she can. Being a rom-com veteran works to her advantage here, as she tries to imbue Mary with all of the warmth and personality that the other characters have. Unfortunately, there’s something that feels missing from the character, and even though McAdams and Gleeson have wonderful chemistry and a rapport that saves their scenes, Mary is never quite as magnetic as the film wants you to believe. Additionally, Tom Hollander is terribly underused as Harry, Tim's foul-mouthed curmudgeon of a roommate, who not only provides the bulk of the film's laughs, but also serves to balance out the lightness and happiness of the rest of the film with some well-placed cynicism.
But McAdams and Gleeson are enjoyable enough to watch, and Curtis' script sweeps you into their love story, but it's once their future is assured and the film begins to focus on Tim's relationship with his family that the movie excels. The strength of the film is the relationship between Tim and his family — in particular, his father and sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). Nighy and Gleeson play off each other perfectly, with the perfect amounts of sentiment and sarcasm in their dialogue. Nighy's character is both incredibly specific to the film and open enough for the audience to project their own idealized father figure onto his place, and he manages to imbue every line he speaks with affection for his son and the world around him. Their relationship is an easy one, and it gives the film most of its warmth and happiness. Their chemistry is what holds the film's narrative together and it's because their scenes are so enjoyable to watch that it gives the film's conflict the right amount of impact and makes their story's ending so bittersweet.
Gleeson also has wonderful chemistry with Wilson, who turns a minor role into a compelling character. As the "screw up" of the family, Kit Kat has a volatile relationship with her dead-beat boyfriend and a habit of drinking too much, and Tim has to reconcile his desire to help rescue his beloved sister with the pressure to keep his ability a secret. Wilson does a wonderful job with Kit Kat, who undergoes a quiet transformation throughout the film from a bubbly, twee sidekick to a more serious, jaded adult. Their love for each other is clear throughout the film, and watching her struggle while Tim eases through life provides an extra layer of tension to their relationship, and another layer of depth to the film.
What really makes About Time work despite its issues is Gleeson's performance. In his first "leading man" role, he not only carries the whole film with charm and ease, but his chemistry with every one of his costars makes him a joy to watch. He portrays Tim's journey from shy, awkward 21-year-old to a content, confident family man with enough wit and heart to easily win the audience over. The film itself does much the same thing, and if you can set aside the slightly formulaic plot and the inconsistent time travel rules, you'll find About Time as enjoyable as its stars. And with the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder, About Time will provide you with just the right amount of entertainment and warmth for the holidays.