'About Time' Transcends Generic Constraints

About Time takes up themes beyond the typical boy-meets-girl story, looking also at father-son relations and the sense of loss that is mandated by passing time.

About Time

Director: Richard Curtis
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-08 (Limited release)
UK date: 2013-09-04 (General release)

Richard Curtis makes romantic comedies that operate comfortably within the constraints of the genre and also, most often, transcend them. His films, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, never feel cookie cutter and in their best moments, offer insights not only into the complexities of love, but also about the story conventions that reinforce our assumptions about it.

Curtis’ latest effort is About Time, a romance with science-fictional overtones that takes up themes beyond the typical boy-meets-girl story, looking also at father-son relations and the sense of loss that is mandated by passing time. If Tim Lake's (Domhnall Gleeson) love for Mary (Rachel McAdams) provides the central plot, his love for his father (Bill Nighy) shapes it. When Tim turns 21, his dad lets him in on a family secret, that all the Lake men have the ability to travel in time.

This premise immediately brings to mind the tragic character in The Time Traveller’s Wife, a man genetically predisposed to travel in time, but has little control over how it happens. (This comparison is all the stronger due to the fact that McAdams is the love interest in both films.) However, in About Time, the character trait is completely manageable. Tim travels only when he chooses to, by simply going into a dark space, clenching his fists and thinking about the time where he wants to go.

Of course, this being a time travel movie, we're expected to overlook such ludicrous mechanics, and instead focus on the effects the traveler has on the past and, in turn, his own future. Viewers with any experience in time travel stories may expect that the so-called butterfly effect -- the simplest changes in the past can ripple to extreme changes in the future -- is in play. This effect sets up such stories' frequent focus on existential questions, and lead travelers to pursue specific ends, like preventing the apocalypse (The Terminator) and horrific disaster (Source Code) or ensuring that the central character is born and so allow a franchise to go on (Back to the Future).

About Time comes at time travel from an angle that at first seems more intimate and even a little mundane. Upon learning of his gift, Tim decides he can use it to get a girlfriend. As he says, for him it was always going to be about love. After a couple of failed attempts to force the issue through time travel, Tim meets the love of his life, Mary, in a conventional way. He is seated next to her randomly at a unique restaurant where the meal is served in complete darkness by blind waiters. They fall for each other without ever seeing each other in the kind of charming sequence that is the trademark of Curtis’ work.

It can’t be that simple though, and Tim throws a wrench in the works when he's trying to help a family friend, Harry (Tom Hollander), make a go of his playwriting career and inadvertently erases his meeting with Mary. Another film might make fixing that problem into Tim's central plotline, but About Time dispenses with it relatively quickly. Instead, it is focused on the bigger question about how time travel can affect the whole of a life, and, just as importantly, lives that are related to that life.

This is where the film shifts about halfway through from a light comedy to a weightier, but never overbearing, philosophical puzzle. Tim’s father has spent a lifetime figuring out the best way to manage his gift, and the insight he offers his son is both touching and surprising. Just as Curtis’ romantic comedies avoid many clichés, About Time dispenses with the usual time travel story's climactic race against the clock. Instead, it takes its own time, becoming a meditation on what time means to individuals and how we might appreciate the moment rather than looking for ways to change it.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.