Even though About Time's key conceit is that lanky ginger Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's boy) has inherited from his father (the perpetually awesome Bill Nighy) the ability to travel back in time to previously lived moments in his life and change them as he sees fit, writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill) is not all that interested in sending his hero through repetitive, Groundhog Day-style tweaks until Tim nails every moment in his life to his greatest satisfaction. Instead, he has Tim play most of his interactions straight, flexing his time-travel muscles mostly just for major faux pas. And while Curtis is usually responsible for making sentimental love stories, About Time is actually a sentimental life story, focusing not just on Tim falling in love with Mary (Rachel McAdams) but showing him growing into a husband and a father. This broader approach gives the story a surprising resonance that ironically makes About Time feel like Curtis's most grounded and realistic movie.
Having had to engineer dozens of movie meet-cutes, Curtis comes up with an interesting first meeting for Tim and Mary. They are seated together at the London version of Dans Le Noir?, a restaurant where patrons are served in pitch blackness by a blind wait staff. Since this is a movie, we do get the slightest glimmer of wine glasses and dishes on the table so that the audience doesn't worry that the projector is broken, but we essentially only get to hear Tim and Mary's first meeting. They get to charm each other -- and us -- with only their words. Then, at the end of the meal, they exit the building and see each other for the first time. It turns out they make a cute couple. Tim manages to get her number, and things are looking up.
However, when Tim gets home, his playwright roommate (a hilariously tempestuous Tom Hollander) has just had the worst night of his life. During the premiere of his new play, one of the actors forgot a line of dialogue and stood frozen like a statue for thirty straight minutes, turning the whole show into an irrevocable disaster. Tim takes it upon himself to go back in time, go to the play with his roommate, and then coach the actor through his brain fart. Thankfully, it works and the play is heralded in the press as a work of genius. Unfortunately, Tim has just erased his date with Mary and lost her number. Now, he has to figure out a way to meet her again for the first time. The "re-meet-cute" section is quite clever, and, of course, turns out to be not nearly as clear-cut for Tim as it was originally.
As Tim's father mentions when he first tells Tim about the ability, their time traveling does not trigger major "butterfly effect"s, but that doesn't mean that every change doesn't have its reverberations across other aspects of Tim's own life. At one point, Tim decides to reveal his time travel ability to his sister (Lydia Wilson) and give her a chance to go back in time with him, so she can nip something in the bud that turned out to be long-term bad news for her. She goes with him and ends up dodging a major emotional bullet, but then Tim finds out the changes these new events have on his own personal life are too drastic for him to handle. So he has to go back in time and unmake the offer to his sister. Tim seems to be perpetually learning throughout the film that there are certain thresholds in life that aren't worth uncrossing.
Curtis, who achieved international renown for his Oscar-nominated script for Four Weddings and a Funeral, is still fascinated by these two particular life events. Tim and Mary's rain-soaked wedding is the laugh-out-loud comedic highlight of the film, which probably explains why it made the poster for the movie despite having nothing to do with time travel. And later, Tim is forced to confront the death of his father (I don't consider this a spoiler, since it's in the trailer). After his dad has died, Tim is able to travel back to the times when the old man was still alive and spend time with him -- he even gets to describe the funeral to his father -- just as long as Tim doesn't pass another major threshold in "real" time. The impending birth of Tim's third child becomes a kind of countdown clock, because once the child is born, Tim can't go into the past without unwanted consequences. Nighy and Gleeson are brilliant in these father-son moments, and their final scenes together are probably the film's most tearjearking.
About Time is essentially a time travel movie that doesn't believe in the need for time travel. For instance, some might argue that it's unfair that Mary never knows that her husband can travel in time and has been shaping their shared destiny for years. But the case that the film presents is that Tim is never abusing his ability; he doesn't do Mary wrong and then make up for it with a quick jaunt back in time. There are plenty of things that time travel simply can't fix for Tim; it's not an escape hatch from all the problems of living. The film forces Tim to lead his life as a responsible man, whose choices affect the fabric of all his relationships. You know, like it is for everybody in modern society.
About Time doesn't spend a lot of time dwelling on pain. Its main interest is adding a sense of wonder to the seeming drudgeries of everyday life. In that respect, it feels like a fairy tale. Nonetheless, the film rings true more often than false. Buoyed by the lead performances by Gleeson and McAdams, and filled out by an exemplary supporting cast, About Time is a joy to watch. If you have any tendencies at all toward crying at movies, you're going to need to keep the box of tissues handy.