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

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.