This 'Time,' Supernatural Love Story Falls Flat

This 'Time,' Supernatural Love Story Falls Flat

5:49pm Nov 02, 2013
Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that he has the ability to travel back and forth through time, a power Tim uses in his pursuit of love.
Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that he has the ability to travel back and forth through time, a power Tim uses in his pursuit of love.
Murray Close / Universal Pictures
  • Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that he has the ability to travel back and forth through time, a power Tim uses in his pursuit of love.

    Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that he has the ability to travel back and forth through time, a power Tim uses in his pursuit of love.

    Murray Close / Universal Pictures

  • Time travel doesn't make Tim's relationship with Mary (Rachel McAdams) perfect so much as it washes over the imperfect bits that make it intriguing.

    Time travel doesn't make Tim's relationship with Mary (Rachel McAdams) perfect so much as it washes over the imperfect bits that make it intriguing.

    Murray Close / Universal Pictures

There's a phrase in French — "L'esprit de l'escalier," meaning "staircase wit" — for that moment when you've lost an argument and are walking away, and waaay too late, think of the perfect comeback. If you could just rewind your life a few minutes, you'd win the argument.

That's pretty much the setup in the new British comedy About Time.

We meet shy, young Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) as he's making a total mess of an opportunity to kiss a girl on New Year's Eve. But the next day, his father (Bill Nighy) tells him a family secret: The men in the family can travel back in time. All they have to do is head into a closet, close their eyes, clench their fists and think about a moment in their lives that could have gone better.

So Tim tries it, heading back to New Year's Eve, and things go better.

"It's going to be a complicated year," Tim says. "It's going to be a complicated life," his father corrects.

True enough. Writer-director Richard Curtis — who wrote Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill — does complicated pretty well at this point. Tim soon meets the girl of his dreams and blows the encounter completely, but after a few tries he manages to pull himself together.

All those Curtis films mentioned above feature Hugh Grant, and while this one doesn't, Gleeson is a decent stand-in. His one true love is played by Rachel McAdams, who must be getting tired of smiling sweetly as all her leading men keep getting do-overs — four years ago in The Time Traveler's Wife, two years ago in Woody Allen's decade-warping Midnight in Paris, and now here. She, meanwhile, has to cope with real life.

One thing you realize as the film goes on is that time travel isn't terribly useful for the romantic bits. Romantic comedy is all about awkwardness and bad timing, and if you can basically eliminate those by popping into a closet, there's no tension after a while. So the story gets bland, and with Curtis being a competent but not an especially exciting director, About Time becomes a case of the bland leading the bland.

If only he could go back and try again.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

There's a phrase in French: l'esprit de l'escalier - meaning staircase wit, for that moment when you've lost an argument and are walking away and way too late, you think of the perfect comeback. If you could just rewind your life a few minutes, you'd win that argument. Film critic Bob Mondello says that's pretty much the setup for the new British comedy "About Time."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We meet shy, young Tim as he's making a total mess of an opportunity to kiss a girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABOUT TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Happy New Year!

DOMHNALL GLEESON: (As Tim) Happy New Year.

MONDELLO: Then the next day, his father tells him a family secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABOUT TIME")

BILL NIGHY: (As Tim's father) The men in the family can travel in time - more accurately, travel back in time. We can't travel into the future.

GLEESON: (As Tim) If it's true - which it isn't...

NIGHY: (As Tim's father) Although it is.

GLEESON: (As Tim) Although it isn't, obviously. But if it was, which it's not...

NIGHY: (As Tim's father ) Which it is.

GLEESON: (As Tim) Which it isn't. But if it was, how would I actually...

NIGHY: (As Tim's father) Well, how is the easy bit, in fact. You go into a dark place - big cupboards are very useful, generally; toilets, in a pinch - then you clinch your fists, like this. Think of the moment you're going to, and you'll find yourself there - after a bit of a stumble and a rumble, and a tumble.

MONDELLO: So he tries it, and things go better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABOUT TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Happy New Year!

GLEESON: (As Tim) It's going to be a complicated year.

NIGHY: (As Tim's father) It's going to be a complicated life.

MONDELLO: True enough. Richard Curtis, the guy who wrote "Love Actually," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Notting Hill," does complicated pretty well at this point. Tim will soon meet the girl of his dreams, and blow the encounter completely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABOUT TIME")

GLEESON: (As Tim) I'm Tim.

RACHEL MCADAMS: (As Mary) I'm Mary.

GLEESON: (As Tim) That's my mother's name.

MCADAMS: (As Mary) I remind you of your mother?

GLEESON: (As Tim) Obviously, I should have thought this through more. Could you give me one second?

MONDELLO: But he's a quick study. The redo is bound to go better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABOUT TIME")

GLEESON: (As Tim) I'm Tim.

MCADAMS: (As Mary) I'm Mary.

GLEESON: (As Tim) I love your eyes.

MCADAMS: (As Mary) Do you?

GLEESON: (As Tim) I love the rest of your face, too. Haven't even looked further down. I'm sure it's all fantastic.

MONDELLO: So OK, this is going to take some work. But when they're parting, he manages to pull himself together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABOUT TIME")

GLEESON: (As Tim) Would it be very wrong if I asked you for your number?

MCADAMS: (As Mary) No.

GLEESON: (As Tim) Just in case I ever, you know, had to call you about...

MCADAMS: (As Mary) Stuff.

GLEESON: (As Tim) Mm.

MONDELLO: All those Richard Curtis films I mentioned a moment ago featured Hugh Grant. And while this one doesn't, you can hear that Domhnall Gleeson is a decent stand-in. His one, true love is played by Rachel McAdams, who must be getting tired of smiling sweetly as all her leading men keep getting do-overs - four years ago, in "The Time Traveler's Wife"; two years ago, in Woody Allen's decade-warping "Midnight in Paris"; and now, here. She, meanwhile, has to cope with real life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ABOUT TIME")

MCADAMS: (As Mary) I have some bad news.

GLEESON: (As Tim) You're dying.

MCADAMS: (a Mary) No, not that bad.

GLEESON: (As Tim) I'm dying?

MCADAMS: (As Mary) No. My parents are in town. They're visiting, and they're coming around.

GLEESON: (As Tim) Oh, God. Parents. American parents.

MCADAMS: (As Mary) Mm-hmm.

GLEESON: (As Tim) When?

MCADAMS: (As Mary) Now. They told me, and I didn't tell you. And I thought they'd cancel because they normally do, and they didn't.

GLEESON: (As Tim) Now-now.

MCADAMS: (As Mary) Now, now, now. So you should probably put on some pants.

MONDELLO: One thing you realize, as the film goes on, is that time travel isn't terribly useful for the romantic bits. Romantic comedy is all about awkwardness and bad timing. And if you can basically eliminate those by popping into a closet, there's no tension after a while. So the story gets bland. And with Richard Curtis being a competent but not an especially exciting director, "About Time" becomes a case of the bland leading the bland. If only he could go back and try again.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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