Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"About Time" Review: Its Clever Use Of Time Travel Turns This Ordinary Romance Into Something Extraordinary


With most recently released films either being based on hotly debated subjects (Captain Phillips), intense survival action (Gravity/All is Lost), controversial sexual content (Blue is the Warmest Color), historical stories about America's tattered past (12 Years a Slave) and political whistle blowers (The Fifth Estate), it felt like the perfect time to see something a little more light hearted. Something a little more easy going, fun and above all else, something that leaves you smiling as you leave the theater.

Enter the aptly titled romantic/time-travel/comedy About Time. Sometimes all those intense movies just make you yearn to see something that makes us just feel all warm and fuzzy inside. If you are looking for a departure from those more serious (but astoundingly good) films and just want something that will put a stupid grin on your face for two hours, well About Time is your ticket. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: Arclight Pasadena
Time: 6:10 pm, Nov. 2, 2013      
Projector Type: Digital      
Film Rating: PG-13       
Film Runtime: 2 hr 5 min   
Studio: Universal Pictures

Biases:  
Loves: Sappy romance flicks with a twist, Bill Nighy
Likes: That warm and fuzzy feeling these types of movies give
Neutral: Some of the time traveling logic doesn't make sense
Hates: Nothing
This is a romantic comedy first: and a time travel film second.


When Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) reaches the age of 21, his father (Bill Nighy) lets him in on an age old family secret about how every male in their family has been gifted with the ability to travel through time. After covering a few basic ground rules such as not being able to travel into the future and not being able to travel back any further than when he was born, Tim heads into the city where he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), the woman of his dreams. As Tim uses his time traveling gift to win the love of his life, he also discovers a number of set backs that his constant travels result in that he wasn't prepared for.

Time travel is tricky business. Not so much in the science of it (which doesn't exist because traveling through time doesn't exist), but more in how it is used by Hollywood. Often times we see it put to use in countless Sci-fi/action/adventure films (the best of which in recent years was last years Looper) and sometimes used for the more bizarre comedic nature of a person traveling through time (Back to the Future anyone?). But last year there was a little gem of a film call Safety Not Guaranteed that introduced time travel into the tried and true romantic comedy genre (and also made my list for the top films of 2012) which helped turn time travel from geeky into full on quirky.


Here we are, almost two years later and we have the new film About Time from writer/director Richard Curtis which is yet another quirky romantic comedy with a time travel premise. After penning some of the most successful romantic comedies over the past two decades with hits such as Notting Hill, Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones' Diary, he has decided to try his hand at a much more fantasy based story, but still infused with all the romance and heart his films have been known for.

The set up isn't any different than your usual romantic comedy. You have yourself a well mannered, insecure and slightly good looking young man who fumbles about and trips over his own words doing his best Hugh Grant impersonation as he seeks out true love. To complete this puzzle there is the free willed and fun loving American woman who is tired of dating losers and just wants to be with someone that will hold her tight and tell her everything will be alright.

As you might expect, their paths eventually cross, they meet, they talk, they lightly flirt with one another and within minutes they are in bed together. This of course all leads to plenty of awkward situations during the course of their relationship such as meeting the parents, dealing with the complexities of each other's careers and the occasional ex-boyfriend/girlfriend who shows up to complicate matters thus placing the film firmly in the cliche-ridden confines of every other romantic comedy ever made.


This is where the saving grace of the film's high concept comes into play and quite literally saves the day. The actors, all of them, are fantastic across the board (especially the always fantastic Bill Nighy who steals ever single scene he is in) and the chemistry between Gleeson and McAdams is potent, but none of that would have been enough to save the film from feeling like every other rom/com to come out of Hollywood in the past three decades. It is the idea of time travel that is introduced that takes this ordinary romantic comedy and turns it into something truly extraordinary.

Like all time travel films, there are rules. However, the film doesn't seem to be too worried about rules (at least not at first). The moment Tim discovers what he can do he is immediately trying the most absurd things possible to get him what he has always wanted, a girlfriend. The way the first half of the film plays out is much like that of the classic Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day, where here Tim isn't limited by waiting an entire day to fix his mistakes, he can just lock himself inside a dark room, clench his fists and wish himself back to where he needs to be whenever he wants.


This of course leads into some classic comedic moments that leaves the film's first half heavily steeped in the comedy category. This is especially true when Tim first meets Mary and a decision he makes that erases their perfect first meeting that leads him on a hilarious path of trying to meet her again for the first time but never being able to do it the way he did it originally. If you are confused don't worry, the film does a much better job at keeping you informed on what obstacles Tim must overcome to make each moment perfect.

The second half of the film is when things begin to shift from comedy into pure drama as a series of events occur over Tim's and Mary's life together that leave Tim with some problematic and nearly impossible decisions he must make. As he tries to craft the perfect life for both him, Mary and their families, it becomes increasingly apparent to Tim that his ability to travel back in time has some unfortunate side effects that he has no real control over beyond resetting everything back to the way it was.

The film also cleverly sidesteps Tim coming off as this extremely selfish guy, which is a very slippery slope considering some of the things he does to manipulate Mary into his life. For instance, by having their first meeting happen naturally and their attraction become readily apparent without him using time travel at all, it makes the scenes later on such as when Tim must find a way to re-meet Mary again and simultaneously remove the guy in her life that took his place seem more romantic than just flat out creepy. It is important for us to always be on Tim's side or else the entire film would fail and thankfully we are never given any reason to doubt his love towards Mary or Mary's love towards him.


These added bits of drama create some unexpected and interesting dilemmas for Tim that always fun to watch unfold but sometimes delve into more serious territory. The film is almost always teetering on this balance of comedy versus drama and Curtis keeps things at just the right tempo as to never turn the film into either a flat out farce or a morbid melodrama. Whenever a tragedy occurs, you can bet your life that just around the corner is a much needed moment of levity to help remind us that this is a story of life and how it should be celebrated at every turn.

Is the film perfect? Of course not, there are some slight pacing issues here with the film running over two hours in length and the time travel aspect to the film, while a lot of fun and executed extremely well, leaves a lot of plot holes and never feels as though any of the consequences for making mistakes are all that dangerous since they always have easy fixes. But the film is just so charming and good natured that you will find it very difficult to hold any of that against it. Watching and experiencing About Time was one of the more pleasant surprises of the year and it deserves your attention.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Romantic comedies are a dime a dozen anymore, so when one comes along that features a superb cast, a beautifully told love story, plenty of genuine laughs and mixes it all together with the unlikely but clever premise of time travel, you need to stand up and take notice. There haven't been too many great or even good romantic comedies this year, but even if the year had been littered with them, About Time would be in the top tier. This is an endlessly charming film that taps into the romantic in all of us, just with the added advent of time travel to spice things up of course.

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