New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 8, 2013
It is about time we addressed the crisis of British manhood. The once-proud nation that in the past century gave us such vital and varied paragons of masculinity as Winston Churchill, Laurence Olivier, Mick Jagger and Morrissey is now represented in the popular imagination mainly by rabbity, passive-aggressive stammerers. With all due respect — or maybe just, sort of, well, just the tiniest smidgen of due respect, if you see what I mean — to Hugh Grant, it all seems to be his fault. When he sweet-talked Julia Roberts in "Notting Hill," the whole world swooned, and the sun slid further below the horizon of John Bull's manly old empire.
Fourteen years later, the extent of the decline can be measured in "About Time," a flimsy bit of mildly romantic, putatively comic Anglophile bait from the writer of "Notting Hill," Richard Curtis. Grant himself does not appear in the movie, but the leading man, Domhnall Gleeson, delivers a remarkably faithful impression of his mannerisms and vocal inflections.
Gleeson plays Tim, who introduces us to his family, a painstakingly assembled collection of eccentrics living in a Cornwall mansion just shabby enough not to be ostentatious. The male line, represented by Tim and his dad (Bill Nighy), is characterized by negligible body fat and the kind of reflexive sarcasm that would seem cruel if these were not such evidently decent chaps. Father and son also share a special endowment that gives the film its gauzy, gimmicky premise. Like the other men in their family — and only the men — they are able to travel in time.
Not crazy "Bill & Ted" or "Doctor Who" stuff, mind you, but sensible, modest little jaunts, always backward and for strictly personal reasons. ("No killing Hitler or that sort of thing.") Dad, who cautions against taking advantage of this ability for selfish purposes, uses it to catch up on his reading. Tim decides that he will use it in the service of love. His trial-and-error courtship of a houseguest named Charlotte (Margot Robbie) prepares him for his pursuit and eventual conquest of Mary (Rachel McAdams), a lovely American he meets at a London restaurant.
An amusing complication requires him to go back and meet her for the first time again, and his insecurity compels him to repeat their first night together until he gets everything just right. This is gallant, perhaps, but also a bit creepy. Time travel is always kept secret from the ladies, whose superpower is to pretend to be exasperated with men they unreservedly adore. This works for Mary, and for Tim's mother (Lindsay Duncan). His sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), is a sadder case. Her whimsy and cleverness lead her to alcoholism and a bad boyfriend, and it falls to her brother to rescue her from the consequences of her choices.
Kit Kat's unhappy circumstances at least lend a bit of drama to a film that seems almost militant in its complacency. Its ideal of perfect happiness — Tim's goal — is the dull, frictionless bliss of television commercials in which people are good-looking and superficially clever without being interesting. Occasional bouts of sorrow or uncertainty make Tim a better person: not just better than his old self, but also better (despite his stammering demurrals) than everybody else. Including you.
This does not make him especially winning company, although McAdams endures both him and an unfortunate hairstyle with her usual aplomb. (What is her thing with temporal wanderers, by the way? First there was Eric Bana in "The Time Traveler's Wife," then Owen Wilson in "Midnight in Paris." Now this.) Nighy and Tom Hollander (as a playwright pal of Tim's father's) provide a bit of old-school grumpiness (though not enough), and Joshua McGuire (as a tongue-tied co-worker of Tim's) suggests frontiers of diffidence yet to be conquered.
The self-satisfaction that "About Time" radiates is so strong that it eclipses any curiosity the audience might bring. You may wish, when it's over, that you could borrow Tim's skill, reclaim the two hours and buy a ticket for something else. (You have a lot of good choices at the moment.) Not that it really makes a difference. By the time you get home from the multiplex, it will be as if the whole thing never happened.