About Time is a sweet little bauble of a film by Richard Curtis about the joys of love, family and time travel. But not the sort of gloomy, apocalyptic, perilous time travel you usually see in movies. After all, Curtis is the writer and director of Love Actually, the greatest romantic comedy/Christmas movie of the 21st century (don’t even try to argue with me about this; you will end up bitter and defeated). Thus About Time does not waste time having its characters try to significantly alter the future by killing Hitler or evil cyborgs. It prefers to blindside you with sentimentality and see how that goes.
The film follows the adventures of Tim (the likable Domhnall Gleeson, who played Levin in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina), who learns on his 21st birthday that the men in his family have the ability to hop around in time. All they have to do, explains his happy-go-lucky father (the great Bill Nighy), is go into a closet and clench their fists, and they’re off to wherever they’d like to go. There are rules, of course. You can’t travel to the future. But you can journey backward in your life and make minor adjustments.
Tim’s childhood has been fairly glorious. He grew up on the English coast with a gorgeous view, his loving parents, weird but sweet uncle and loose cannon of a sister, so he has no tragedies to repair. At first he uses his talent for simple things: retrieving a bumbled New Year’s Eve kiss, for example. Then he wields the power for something more important: winning the heart of pretty Mary (Rachel McAdams, playing yet another Time Traveler’s Wife).
But just when you sigh in exasperation, assuming that About Time is going to spend its more-than-two-hour running time on Tim’s efforts to perfect every moment to get the girl of his dreams, the movie surprises you. Curtis carries you quickly past the meet-cute and through Tim and Mary’s lives, from moving in together to marriage to kids. That’s when the time traveling starts to get sticky, when Tim finally faces a crisis and has to make some tough, heartbreaking choices.
About Time is a bit longer than it needs to be, and on occasion it seems to play a little fast and loose with the time travel construct. Worse, Tim never considers telling Mary — his soulmate! — about his secret power, although there’s absolutely no reason not to tell her.
But Curtis pulls off some amusing moments, and he has a secret weapon: Nighy, who is so jolly and funny you wish he’d had more screen time. When the movie begins its inevitable slide toward tragedy, the treacle is tempered by his marvelously dry delivery. About Time is about what we should already know: That time is precious and fleeting and we should enjoy every moment to its fullest. But I suppose a reminder never hurts.
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Tom Hollander.
Writer-director: Richard Curtis.
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 123 minutes. Language, sexual content. Opens Friday Nov. 1 at area theaters.