Film review: About Time - Richard Curtis's directorial swan song is Awful, Actually

1.00

 (12A)

I felt very sorry for the young woman at the screening of Richard Curtis's new film who found herself sitting right by the muttering loony; on and on he went, cursing beneath his breath, clicking his tongue in exasperation and quietly repeating the words "I hate this film" as if it were a mantra. Unconscionable, really. In fact, I'd like to offer her a personal apology and give an assurance that I'll try not to behave like that in a cinema again. But I couldn't help myself.

About Time is actually an improvement on Richard Curtis's previous outing as writer-director, the repulsively sleazy and puerile The Boat That Rocked. Its cast is strong, the location work is attractive, and Domhnall Gleeson is so disarming in the lead role that at times the film becomes almost bearable. He plays Tim, a lanky, pale, ginger-haired young fellow who at certain angles looks positively handsome; he is, in the Curtisian way, a hopeful romantic. On his 21st birthday, Tim is informed by his father (Billy Nighy) that the men of their family are secretly blessed with the gift of time-travel. You just nip into a dark closet or cupboard, clench your fists and, hey presto, you're off. But the small print reveals it's travel of a limited kind: the beneficiaries can only trip back (not forwards) within their own lifetime, so there's no assassinating Hitler or saving the Titanic or whatever.

Tim, in any case, knows straightaway how he's going to use his power: he wants to get a girlfriend. Things look promising when he meets a cute American, Mary (Rachel McAdam, already a veteran of such whimsy from The Time-Traveler's Wife) but on account of a glitch he "loses" that first encounter and has to woo her all over again. Then, deploying his time-bending lark to edit out all his gaffes on their Big Night – a stumble on the stair, a fumble with the bra, a tumble in the sack that's not quite perfect – he makes smooth the course of true love without Mary suspecting a thing. This might have struck us as a clever conceit had we not seen it done with far more wit, heart and precision 20 years ago in Groundhog Day. It's the same routine that Bill Murray's misanthropic weatherman follows, obliged to rehearse the same moves and learn the same lines over one eternal day until he wins round the woman he loves.

The moral tension there lay in character: Murray starts out as a creep who becomes ennobled by his Sisyphean task. In About Time, Gleeson's Tim is a lawyer, a job which could have been mined for character flaws but isn't: he's a decent and kindly bloke who happens to be slightly awkward around women. Curtis, far from putting obstacles in his way, creates around Tim a blessed bulwark of middle-class ease: parents (Nighy and Lindsay Duncan) who adore him, a romantic family house overlooking the Cornish coast, lots of friends, good prospects. Why does this already privileged young man need to be a time-traveller?

The script strikes one horrible false note after another. Early on, Tim says in voiceover (echoing Hugh Grant in Love Actually), "I have never bumped into a genuinely happy rich person", which is not a generality that will bear close scrutiny in a Curtis film. You keep hearing the clunk of a writer who doesn't "get" human interaction. A small example: emerging from the theatre, Tim and his friend run into Charlotte (Margot Robbie), who was Tim's first crush. She is also with a friend, which puts the kibosh on the pair of them having a proper catch-up. They say goodbye. Cut to a minute later and Charlotte reappears, having told her friend to (and I quote) "go and have dinner on her own". Tim dumps his own friend in like fashion. Did this brusque social expediency seem in any way charmless or hurtful to the writer? Apparently not – but it does to us. One's goodwill is further tested by silly riffs about "prostitutes", the done-to-death montage of The Woman Who Can't Decide Which Dress To Wear, and a wedding speech in which dad tells son that he loves him. Pass the bouquet.

We get brief patches of shade to counterpoint the banks of light. Tim's sister is an unstable girl who expresses her unhappiness through drink and a twerp of a boyfriend. Her name is Kit Kat, which may represent another, probably unconscious, plagiarism on Curtis's part. Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Line of Beauty (2004) also features an unstable sister who expresses her unhappiness through drink and a twerp of a boyfriend. Her name is Cat. The film then breaks its own rule about time-travel as a men-only inheritance by allowing Tim to whisk Kit Kat back in time to show her a crucial error she must avoid. But the betrayal of its logic feels small beer amid the larger offences of taste and tone.

His defenders will argue that About Time is a lovely, sunny film about the importance of noticing "how sweet the world can be". To object to that would be curmudgeonly. What's so galling is that Curtis gives optimism a bad name. The message is unarguable: be kind. Be grateful. Be nice to one another. The method, however, is glib, ingratiating, falsely democratic and frequently inept. This latest enacts a fantasy in which death itself is briefly cheated: before a loved one dies of cancer, wouldn't we all like to flit back to a time when we accompanied them on a sunlit stroll on the shore? And when they do finally shuffle off, why not have more children to plug the gap? Pardon me if I choke on these tranquillising inanities.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat