Skip to main content

You're kidding! I can go anywhere in time and you bring me back to the worst party of all time.

About Time
(2013)

The usual life affirming, romance-driven, slop from Richard Curtis, his formula long-since honed to a blunt edge. He’s indicated he was inspired backwards, so to speak, to make a movie involving time travel by his wish to express the sentiment that the best possible day would be a day like any other, with your loved ones, and lived as if it is your final day. You know, sodden mush filtered through a treacly upper-middle class dial-a-script.  There isn’t an ounce of originality here, once he’s magpied the likes of Groundhog Day and The Time Traveler’s Wife. And not even very well! I’m not necessarily going to rip apart a picture’s internal logic if it satisfies on other levels (emotionally, for example – this doesn’t) but Curtis has devised a scenario that makes no sense.


So much so that the a significant portion of the picture’s Wikipedia page is devoted to pointing out how Curtis abandons his slipshod rules of time-travel just as soon as it’s convenient (or, as Mark Kermode witheringly comments, “whenever the prospect of an extra hug rears its head”). So, Dad (Bill Nighy) informs junior Tim (Domhall Gleeson) of his ability on turning 21. Arbitrarily, or as a result of abject sexism, only the men in the family are able to do this (except when Curtis wants to break his rule). They can’t go visit the future (unless one classes an alternate present one has no experience of but which one suddenly remembers entirely as the future, that is), and they can’t go back before they were born. That rule isn’t broken, but Tim seems curiously uninterested in travels prior to the point he is first informed of this (‘cos it’s About Love, see). That, and presumably Big wasn’t a big influence on Curtis (one presumes Tim’s adult consciousness would be trapped in his child self’s body, but there’s only one point in the finished move where we’d get to ask this and it’s played out as a hazy halcyon sunset).


Curtis, as noted, realised that if you go forward to a different future you need to remember that memories of the future you haven’t experienced (although you don’t lose the no longer existing ones), something the end of Back to the Future didn’t think about (unless Zemeckis and Gale were playing with multiple parallel Martys, but unfortunately the trilogy isn’t nearly that clever). But for similar reasons as Robert Zemeckis, this director-writer then chooses to completely ignore his rule when he needs to his protagonist to be surprised by something of which he should be fully aware.  So too, the sudden inclusion of a rule that if you go back in time before your child is born the infinite variables (well, the number of different potential sperm) will result in a different child is as close as Curtis gets to embracing The Butterfly Effect. Which he promptly discards with no adverse consequences when he wants to seep schmaltz over the screen.


Of his various narrative nonsenses, the one that threw me the most was the mode of time travel itself. Simple and effective, one might think; Tim goes into a cupboard, or dark place, closes his eyes, grips his fists and thinks of a moment he wants to revisit. And lo, he is transported there in place of his other self currently there. When he’s finished, he returns to his dark space and comes back to the present. Except that… If he arrives in the past, in a cupboard, his earlier self would have to be in that cupboard waiting. Or wink out of whatever (possibly public) place he happened to be at the time. And, when Tim leaves again, what remains of his consciousness of the events in the mind of his self he engineered? Does Tim retain the awareness of his future self, or just go on as if nothing ever happened? I have no idea. Curtis is far too lazy to bother with any of this (he claims he followed his rules rigorously, so I can only assume he’s utterly shit at board games).


He’s tackled time travel before, of course, for motives both of broad comedy (Blackadder Back and Forth) and an attempt to touch on themes of personal validation and artistic merit (quite effectively, in Doctor Who’s Vincent and the Doctor; for all the glibness of the current (nu-) series, and the dire straits in which it currently languishes, the season he wrote for is easily its peak). Here, however, it’s a pointless device; he’d have been better off using an actual magic wand that causes less logical frictions (how about Adam Sandler’s crazy remote control?) Either that, or made the effort to fashion something, if not watertight, then sea-worthy. Harold Ramis managed it with Groundhog Day. That’s why it’s a classic (that and Bill Murray; Andie McDowell not so much). It uses its conceit genuinely inventively and to a variety of tonal ends from deceit, to slapstick, to kindness, and then wisdom (and then love).


If you’re invested in the characters and the general thrust, the shortcomings are more than likely forgivable.  But, akin to Ned Ryerson being punched in the jaw, Curtis actively rejects the moral lessons of the picture he clearly venerates.  Tim is actively unchanging and, worse, he gains his ultimate goal of love early on, through deceitful means that we’re supposed to find charming (I guess so, anyway). I expect the “plot” argument is that he sacrifices the initial perfect date to help his friend (in fairness, the “dinner in the dark” date is probably the best-sustained sequence in the movie), so he’s only getting what he deserves. But Tim resorts to stalker activity to attain his goal and behaves in a generally underhand, morally dubious, manner, from sabotaging Mary’s relationship to revisiting his first shag until he gets it right. Essentially, their marriage is built on a series of lies, ones about which Tim never comes clean.


Is Curtis’ message (a peculiar one from a man so obsessed with engineering fantasy romances) that none of these subterfuges are important; they just go to underpin a strong marriage? Curtis doesn’t have the Machiavellian quality to provide any edge to Tim and, because he isn’t required to grow or learn in any kind of concrete way, his actions come across as all the more unsettling and less justifiable. Perhaps this is a side effect of the director saving (what he hopes is) the real emotional core of the movie for the father-son relationship, but this side is entirely lacking too. Tim loves dad; what's there to realise there? Other than that Curtis' capacity for maudlin self-indulgence can reach new lows even by his standards. Tim's realisation that he doesn’t need to relive any of his days because his life is so full is a wishy-washy lesson; there hasn’t been any dramatic meat or conflict to lead to such a point. Likewise, the instruction Dad gives him to try living everyday almost exactly the same “but this time noticing” is paid off by a couple of scenes where he smiles at a cashier. It’s utterly vapid.


As with all Curtis pictures this one revolves around his relentlessly upbeat, chocolate box idea of romantic love. I’m not expressly against this. I quite like Four Weddings and a Funeral, and The Tall Guy, and I generally find Hugh Grant’s stammering toff routine engaging and charming, despite my better instincts. Curtis doesn’t have a Hugh here to help him, however, so it falls to Gleeson, a good actor going through the motions of the fecklessly lovelorn. He isn’t quite up to the task, but it isn’t really his fault; you can hear the dialogue styled for a man with a greater flair for Received Pronunciation and a ready-and-willing floppy fringe. As Mary, Rachel McAdams goes the way of all female leads in Curtis vehicles, cast into shadow by the antics of her co-star. She has more presence than an Andie McDowell, but who doesn’t? And she was in Time Traveler’s Wife, so there’s some strictly limited inspiration going on (I’m surprised Curtis didn’t ask Anna Faris of Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel along for a scene). There’s also the usual coterie of eccentrics, female (Lydia Wilson is highly appealing as Kit Kat, the picture’s Charlotte Coleman character) and male (Tom Hollander as the misanthropic flatmate)


This wouldn’t be a Curtis joint without a ridiculously upbeat music montage or three. At least, I should think there are that many. As a director (this is his third) he’s utterly undisciplined, stretching the running time past the two-hour mark (mercifully, it’s still his shortest movie, but that’s a good half hour longer than it needs to be). And one wonders if lucky talisman Nighy (called on to spout lines about liking Nick Cave – Gleeson is stuck with Baz Luhrmann – and generally give off the air of someone thoroughly weary with repeating the same old performance ad infinitum) is such a blessing after all.  Maybe he should go back to lovely, floppy-haired Hugh if he wants a decent hit. About Time has one saving grace, however (well, two, given that none of the actors deserve a hard time for suffering through Curtis’ reheated leftovers); it’s not The Boat that Rocked.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…