'About Time' Is the Donald Trump of Romantic Comedies
About Time professes to celebrate life, but instead celebrates perhaps the most narcissistic, selfish behaviour ever rendered in film.
It's just part of the cycle of life.
Every 12 months, around December, a new snowfall of think pieces arrives, either condemning or defending the problematic implications of Richard Curtis' Christmas-themed anthology film, Love Actually. No doubt with the film's short pseudo-sequel having been released this past Red Nose Day, a new blizzard of such critiques has filled the air. A good deal of the issues surrounding the film concern its troublesome exploitation of the romantic genre. But whatever issues people may have with Love Actually, they pale into insignificance when compared to one of Curtis' later, less-discussed projects, About Time: a film that takes this manipulation of genre to some truly horrifying extremes.*
Because I'm a snarky, ranty person on the interwebs who hates joy, I fall rather firmly on the side of criticising Love Actually. Indeed, the whole thing plays out like a collection of malignant narcissistic disorders slathered in carollers and holiday sweaters.
You've got the insanity of Colin Firth's character proposing to a woman that he has literally never had a single conversation with, and a restaurant full of people, including the woman's family, thinking that's delightful. There's the bizarre and disturbing image of everyone repeatedly fat-shaming the Martine McCutcheon character. There are the multiple (multiple!) storylines of male employers pursuing their female employees. There's a performance by Emma Thompson so stellar that it almost makes you forget that her character is playacting domestic normality to protect the reputation of her cheating husband (played by the always exceptional Alan Rickman). And there's Liam Neeson's character, teaching his son to hover awkwardly in the orbit of a girl he likes rather than talk to her, a story that ends with the boy chasing her through an airport to declare his love despite being pretty much a stranger.
This is all before addressing the infamous sliminess of Andrew Lincoln's character, who -- after stealing the spotlight at the wedding of his best friend and filming the bride so obsessively he might actually be a serial killer -- decides to dump a selfish truth-bomb on the new wife by confessing his love for her while her husband (again: his best friend) potters around unaware in the next room. The film tries desperately to present this act as sweet, but even once you strip away the stalker vibe, he's forcing her to share a lie with him that both of them will now forever keep from her husband.
Having said all that, however, I can understand why people like Love Actually.
Despite its undercurrent of sexism and its frequently hideous messages about what constitutes 'love', the final package comes soaked in a comforting brine of whimsical hokeyness. By presenting itself as a pastiche romantic genre film, it strip mines every feel-good trope and romantic flick convention ever committed to celluloid -- confessions; betrayals; comical embarrassments; awkward meet-cutes; love triangles; public proposals; even rushing to the airport gets dusted off -- all this cliché creates its own narrative structure, basking in the reflected glow of its source material. Once you add to that mix a silly amount of astonishing actors and a slathering of sentimental music cues, it's no wonder the film has fans.
Just like the footage of the airport arrival gate that typifies the film's naff feel-good philosophy, even though what it's doing is shallow and manipulative, it's no surprise that viewers might read such mawkishness as earnest. To stick with the Christmas theme: it's like a sprig of mistletoe. It forces contrived romantic rituals, but it's all in fun and ends in a kiss, and some people find that charming.
While Love Actually might walk a risky line though, arguably saving itself from condemnation by embracing its genre tropes, About Time tips straight over into grotesquery precisely because of the motifs it seeks to embrace. About Time, which Curtis both wrote and directed, swaps the stylistic devices of holiday movies and romance films, and replaces them with the mechanics of science fiction, finding a way to exponentially ramp up every ugly subtext by centering its emotional drama around time travel.
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To be fair to About Time, it must be said that genre narratives often romanticise unhealthy relationships. By transplanting human behaviour into the broad metaphors of sci-fi tropes and adventure plotting, what would otherwise be considered unseemly, noxious, or even outright disturbing, can be suddenly given a superficially charming sheen.
In the execrable Twilight novels and films, the watered down gothic trappings of werewolves and vampires obscure the reality that the inert Bella is essentially the victim of an abusive, controlling boyfriend. Strip him of his cheap rip-off-of-Buffy's-boyfriend mystique and Edward is just a pallid, smug emo weed who invades her space, spies on her while she sleeps, controls her behaviour, and continuously laughs in her face at how naïve he thinks she is. So cuuuuuuuuute.
Not that superhero films are much better, often reducing their female love interests to imperiled arm candy. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) Peter Parker goes full Spidey Psycho on Gwen Stacey, repeatedly breaking up with her only to then stalk her around the city, finally promising (or threatening?) to not let her leave the country without him, vowing to follow her, forever, wherever she goes. You know it's true love because it's objectively terrifying.
Even the 2016 sci-fi film Passengers (spoiler alert) received criticism for making a romantic lead out of a guy so needy that he condemns a woman he doesn't know -- but who he thinks is hot -- to die alone with him in the vacuum of space. After all, once she's awoken her from cryo-stasis she'll have to date him! He's literally the only choice for companionship she'll have for the rest of her life! It's sweet because he's locked her in his nightmare space dungeon.
But About Time leaves all of these fictions in the dust.
About Time presents itself as a light-hearted, magic realist jaunt about a young man, Tim (played by Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers that he has the power to travel through time -- a gift that the men in his family have all apparently possessed. He can revisit moments in the past and correct mistakes that he once made, thereby overwriting history without anyone realising the change. It's effectively Quantum Leap (1989) if Dr Sam Becket was a self-involved ass.
Presumably, this premise is meant to be charming -- a kind of playful wish-fulfilment riff in which the protagonist is granted an extraordinary gift only to learn some life lessons that the audience can vicariously share. An updated Midas touch narrative, like 2003's Bruce Almighty or Adam Sandler's Click (2006). But in practice, despite promising the potential ramifications of meddling with one's own existence, the narrative only embraces the conventions of the sci-fi genre in order to craft the quintessential narcissistic male fantasy.
Because let's be clear: the principle character of this film is a straight up horrible human being.
Upon learning that he has the power to leap across time and fiddle with causality, Tim immediately begins using this power to try and trick women into falling in love with him (the woman he pursues, played by Margot Robbie, thankfully rejects his advances). While one might expect this to be a serious character flaw out of which he will eventually grow, he instead simply moves straight onto trying the exact same routine to seduce his future wife (played by Rachel McAdams, who, after also starring in the Time Traveller's Wife (2009), must be truly sick of being jerked around by this temporal displacement crap by now). It's not that his actions were wrong, the film suggests, he just hadn't met the right girl to oppressively program into being his 'the one'.
In any other film, a man sneaking into a woman's social circle for the express purpose of gathering information he can use to lure her in, a man lurking (for several weeks!) in places he knows she's going to be, who stages elaborate scenarios in order to trick her into liking him, would be a serial killer. This film gives that man the power to leap through time and considers it charming.
As the movie proceeds, this 4th-dimensional creeper's actions become only more unsettling. Even putting aside his obvious outrages (breaking up his girlfriend's relationship with another man by travelling back in time and making sure she never meets him; using conversations he has with her in the future to 'game' her into liking him in the past, etc.) there's the moment of their first sexual encounter.
In a bit of 'hilarious' business, it's implied that their lovemaking was a bit of a disappointment (or at least, that's how Tim perceives it, and this film is nothing if not solely concerned with his feelings), so he goes back in time and does the experience over again. The second time the sex is apparently great -- and she, of course, has no memory (or experience) of his first, less stellar performance -- but Tim still thinks he can do better, so he travels back for a third go. When the film catches up with him, he and his lover have tumbled out of bed in a clichéd post-coital sprawl, spent, but finally satisfied.
Well, he is. Because she turns to him and admits she's disappointed they only got to have sex once...
Ba dum tss!
It's all very hilarious -- except not. Because if you think for more than a second about the foppish, boys-will-be-boys time travel 'gag' being played out here, this time travel 'comedy' pretty swiftly becomes Back to the Rohypnol. What he has done to the woman he professes to care about is had sex with her under false pretences, and robbed her of the pleasure he has helped himself to, at her expense, at least twice.