Sunday, November 17, 2013

About Time Review: A Sweet British Treat for Rom-Com Fans

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Richard Curtis
Starring:Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Tom Hollander
(Limited) Release Date: November 1, 2013
(Wide) Release Date: November 8, 2013

I will address this as clearly and directly as possible: despite being a man, with man parts and man feels, I like romantic comedies.
Scratch that: I like good romantic comedies. Important distinction to make.
Since I'm a big film-goer, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me to instantly dismiss any kinds of genres, so long as they feel in some shape or form like actual movies driven by a story, characters, themes/messages, or even just pure emotion-driven spectacle- even if it's begrudging, they still deserve to be recognized as movies, be they good or not. It makes even less sense, and frankly is nowadays just feeling more and more backwards and arbitrary, to dismiss a genre based on gender-defined categories of who the intended audience is supposed to be. Shouldn't anyone be able to like a rollicking action movie, just as much as anyone should be able to like a romantic comedy, so long as the film in question is a good example of its genre? Just as there are truly great action movies (Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dark Knight), there are also truly great romantic comedies- The Apartment, When Harry Met Sally, and (500) Days of Summer to name a few. Add Love Actually to that list- the 2003 British all-star ensemble film dubbed as "the ultimate romantic comedy", it split itself into a wide array of (occasionally interlocking) stories set around the Christmas season in London, all unified through the theme of love in its many, sometimes surprising forms. It became a sizable hit when it was released, and is still considered by many to be one of the best romantic comedies of its decade, even if it's 63% RT score indicates a more divisive (yet still generally positive) reception. Being a favorite to bring about for the holidays around the household, I definitely recommend you go see it.
Really, go see it.
You may as well just do it if you haven't already.
Take your time, it's a long bloody movie.

 The film was written and directed by Richard Curtis, most known for his writing of many widely-loved romantic comedies, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary (oh, and Hugh Grant has been in a lot of them, if you hadn't noticed). As to why I urged you to go see it? Well this review's subject, About Time, is Curtis' latest writer/director effort, and watching Love Actually will prove the perfect litmus test regarding your feelings towards its particular sensibilities.
 About Time follows Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), an awkward, shy 21-year-old man who is one day told by his father (Bill Nighy) about his family's secret: that the men in his family have the ability to travel through time. Though the ability can only be used through his own life (yeah, the movie decides not to linger on or dissect its time travel rules, and frankly neither should you), the revelation is going to make for, most assuredly, "a very complicated life". Once he moves out of his family's home to become a lawyer in London, he meets (and through various time-travel shenanigans must re-meet and re-re-meet) the reader for a publishing company, the lovely young woman Mary (Rachel McAdams).
Bill Nighy on the limits of time travel: "It can only be through your own life. I mean, you can't kill Hitler... or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately."

 In many romantic comedies, the wacky time-travel shenanigans of Tim trying to woo the girl of his dreams would be the whole focus of the film. It would be full of facepalm-inducing misunderstandings, contrived will-they/won't they tension, a third act post-split montage of people moping, and hugely cheesy (if not over-the-top outrageous) declarations of love leading up to the fairy-tale happy ending of an end-of-movie kiss and/or marriage. But About Time proves to be different, having its main leads happily married and expecting children just past the halfway mark, all while still having satisfied one's movie couple courtship fix. The film shifts into more emotional territory as Tim becomes a father, as well as coping with family problems involving his sister's personal struggles and his father's oncoming death. That the film spends just as much time on the characters falling in love as it does on what happens afterwards feels refreshing in a genre that Hollywood has been driving to increasingly stale lows. It also allows for the film to speak more broadly of its overarching message, sentiments on the nature of life that, while not exactly complex, still prove affirming and worth taking to heart.
Through all of this is a great cast, led by Gleeson's Tim and McAdams' Mary in an ever-charming pairing. You know your romantic pairing is good when you feel like you can just listen to the two of them casually talk about trivial things and still be altogether engaged. The dialogue and its delivery has just the right amount of human awkwardness to make it feel natural, all while still delivering laughs gentle and hearty. It even mixes in a touch of down-to-earth cynicism to keep the proceedings from veering too far into truly saccharine territory. The supporting cast hits all their notes with aplomb, yet it is Bill Nighy as Tim's father who truly stands out, a perfect match for Curtis' style, mixing deprecating wit with an often underlying yet palpable sense of warmth. His scenes with Gleeson as his son are touching without being sappy, fully selling the audience on a more dramatic shift that would likely sink a lesser film if it hadn't struck just the right notes, finding just the right balance.
At 2 hours, the film is pretty consistently engaging, yet occasionally slows in pace with an episodic structure stuffed with various side characters and subplots. While all these facets and people in Tim's life do accentuate the pivotal messages of appreciating life's many moments and details (good and bad), there are certainly a few (admittedly good) scenes that could have been excised. Then again, Curtis' other directing efforts have all proven somewhat overstuffed (The Boat That Rocked proved so such so that its U.S. distributors actually edited out a whopping 30 minutes for release there, under the new title Pirate Radio), and of the three About Time probably still suffers the least from this issue.
The chemistry between Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams keeps much of the film aloft.

 About Time is the best romantic comedy in what feels like some time, a statement I stand by even if that praise doesn't mean a whole lot considering the dire straits of the genre at the moment (Remember Playing For Keeps? Wait, of course you don't, even though it came out just last year. Exactly.) While it won't convert any staunch non-fans of the genre in general or of Curtis' prior films, those who are looking for a love story of the sweet, charming, and decidedly British variety will be far from disappointed. Its humor and writing hits just the right spot, mixing its awkward sweetness and sentimentality with just the right pinch of raunchier, more cynical material. Its willingness to move past the standard Hollywood rom-com ending point gives it a refreshingly grounded feel, as does its emotional and bittersweet third-act, which actually results in an even stronger warm, feel-good vibe once the credits roll.
Curtis' Love Actually only seems to have inspired Hollywood to eventually try their own stab at big-star multi-story rom-coms with the toxically dull Valentine's Day (and it's follow-up New Year's Day- wait, don't remember that one either? Again, exactly.) But if we're lucky then maybe, just maybe, About Time will inspire the sputtering Hollywood rom-com machine with some tips as to how they can bring audiences back in better graces. Find some spark, look for some inspiration, think outside the most standard cookie-cutter boxes, give your leads some meat to go with their sweet. You could always try going past the "married ever after" part, for instance...

Final Score: 8.5/10

+ Frequently hilarious
+ Gleeson and McAdams have a strong, charming screen chemistry
+ An emotional, sentimental third act that actually works for once
+ Time travel is loose yet effectively mined for both humor and life-affirming pathos 
+ Bill Nighy. Just... Bill Nighy. Seriously, he's awesome.
- Your mileage will definitely vary
- Those who dislike rom-coms in general won't have changed their minds after this one
- A little too long, with some good scenes that still could have been cut
- Episodic, occasionally uneven pacing