Richard Curtis has written (and directed, in the case of “Love Actually”) some of the best romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Though Curtis has recently announced that “About Time” will likely be his final film as a director, the movie represents everything that’s great about the kind of romantic comedies Curtis excels at making. That’s because unlike most of the garbage in the genre, his films are about much more than just the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding, which he delivers in spades with the excellent “About Time.”
Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) has just turned 21, and the day after his family’s customary New Year’s Eve party, his father (Bill Nighy) lets him in on a secret: the men on his side of the family have the ability to travel through time. All he needs to do is go somewhere dark (like a closet or bathroom), clench his fists, and think of the time and place he wants to go back to. There are some caveats to Tim’s newfound powers, but the most important one is that he can only change events in his own life, so he decides to use them to find a girlfriend. It’s hardly the most inspiring use of such an incredible gift, but after moving to London to work as a lawyer, Tim meets the girl of his dreams in American import Mary (Rachel McAdams). He’s able to perfect every moment in their relationship by doing it over and over again “Groundhog Day”-style, but Tim eventually discovers that there are consequences to altering history.
It’s no secret that Curtis loves working with Hugh Grant (the actor has appeared in four of his films), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better replacement than Domhnall Gleeson, who is outstanding in the lead role as a dorkier and more relatable version of the typical Grant character. Gleeson has been on the verge of breaking out for several years, particularly with his scene-stealing role in “Anna Karenina,” and his performance in “About Time” proves that the actor is primed for bigger and better things. Rachel McAdams is also good as Tim’s love interest, and it’s their chemistry that allows the audience to really buy into the relationship. But for as important as Tim and Mary’s love story may be to the movie, it’s the father/son bond that’s the most affecting, thanks in no small part to Bill Nighy, who’s essentially playing the world’s greatest dad. Curtis has said that the death of his own father helped inform the writing of this film, and that adoration shines through in every scene between Gleeson and Nighy.
“About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. It’s incredibly charming, funny and touching, flitting between emotions so effortlessly that you sometimes find yourself laughing while still choking back the tears. Though the movie gets a little serious in the final act, it’s essential to the story’s core message, which is all about not living in the past and enjoying every day to the fullest. The way in which Tim learns that lesson is a tad cruel, but the last 30 minutes are handled beautifully, ending on a sad but sweet note that will resonate with anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. If the rumors are true and “About Time” does end up being Curtis’ swan song, the writer/director can take comfort knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s also one of his best.