It feels like ages since we managed to sit down on a Saturday night and watch a movie, something borne as much from the Autumn rush of new TV as anything else. We've managed to keep up with four - four! - new seasons of superhero telly, plus Doctor Who and my own obsession with Strictly Come Dancing, but this week we finally managed to settle in with the latest DVD we've had from lovefilm, which been gathering dust from October. This turned our to be About Time, the lastest offering from Richard Curtis, promising to be an extremely middle-class rom-com with a smattering of Time Travel Shenanigans.
Problems with About Time start early, and really just sort of pile up. At the risk of skipping ahead, I never found it an offensively bad film, but it's certainly not a good one. The main conceit of the film is that our somewhat bland hero finds out early on that his family - the men, specifically - have an ability to travel back in time to an earlier point in their lives, Quantum Leap style, and relive it differently. The movie then sort of meanders through his life, showing him use this ability to really do nothing special or out of the ordinary, but really attempts to use it to make a more emotionally focused story about love, loss and the meaning of life. Which is fine, in theory, as long as it works.
The obvious parallel here is Groundhog Day, another film that uses thinly explained time travel to tell a emotional story with some big laughs along the way. The comparison is especially strong early in the film, where we see our hero "doing over" his courtship to stop himself looking like a moron. The biggest problem here is the creepy/endearing line, which always comes into play when you have a man pursuing/stalking a woman and the power dynamic of that relationship is adrift. He's able to reach out to her because he's tried several approaches that failed. He's able to say the right thing, not because of any actual human understanding and empathy but due to trial and error. He's good bed, because...well, you get the picture. I mean, its not the intent, because he's portrayed as dorky and lovable, but it dances that line too close to the wrong the side and sometimes over it. Contrast to Groundhog Day, where the lead character is a dickhead who has to "earn" love by real emotional change - yes its got some of the same gender problems, but the character arc is solid, engaging and likeable.
The second half dispenses with the love story in favour of a focus on the father-son bond. They've a big advantage her in that Bill Nighy is pretty much great in everything, and classes up the place just by being on-screen. However, the stack of extra time-travel rules snuck in late in the day, as well as a heavy-handed script full of platitudes tells me what I should be feeling rather than actually making me feel it. Look, I don't expect Time Travel to make sense in these things, because it's never going to, but films like Looper (which makes no goddamn sense whatsoever) get away with it by carrying you along with it despite your better judgement, and by establishing a set of rules it largely sticks to. Its internal consistency that is key, if you're going to make plot points out of it, not "oh, we forgot to mention" turns of logic.
Much of the film is pretty classy in a lot of ways - the direction is efficient and occasionally lovely, in a picture-postcard middle-class-England sort of way, and the cast are all likeable and easy going. Individual scenes are fine, the dialogue is often witty and clever, but there is a hole at the centre of the film and that is that it really doesn't know which story it is trying tell, or how to tell it. A film about the father-son bond that used time-travel to let them know each other at different stages of their lives? A love story in the vein of Time Travellers Wife but even more creepy? Hell, a consciously creepy deconstruction of the man pursuing passive women trope would be pretty cool, actually, but require a darker heart than Richard Curtis seems to possess. What you are left with is a film that doesn't manage to say anything, or be anything, it's just a spongy mess that just sort of is, something that passes the time without really leaving any trace of it's passage.