How to manipulate time… and people

Richard Curtis, I’ll happily admit: your 2013 film About Time made me smile, laugh and shed a manly tear. Okay, not quite, but I found myself touched and moved. It also made me want to shout obscenities and throw things at the TV, and not in good ways: About Time can be witty in one scene and trite in the next, it has moments of poignancy and others that are saccharine, and it manages to come off both charmingly self-effacing and smug under the disguise of glib humility.

Perhaps it’s difficult to imagine how such an overtly inoffensive film could leave me so angry when I’d actually say that I enjoyed a lot of it. About Time is that most common of genres, the time-travel rom-dram-com, and the way it brings together its outlandish conceit may be one of the things I liked best – like all the men in his bloodline, the main character Tim (played by Domhnall Gleeson) can travel back in time within the limits of his own life, making changes as he sees fit. Why? Dunno. How? He just needs to go and stand in a dark cupboard, clench his fists and concentrate. In one of many lovely father-and-son scenes, Tim’s dad (Bill Nighy, as charmingly odd as ever) basically gives his son a Curtisian version of Looper’s diagrams-and-straws speech which boils down to this: shh, it’s silly, let’s have some fun with this, okay?

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The film isn’t interested in the metaphysical ramifications of time travel, and it doesn’t need to be. Its time travel is used for humour, romance and characterisation; Tim, while far from unattractive (in a Hugh-Grant-by-way-of-the-Weasleys way), isn’t exactly a big hit with the ladies, but the leg up he receives from his powers does get him an in with American cutie Mary (Rachel McAdams), who he ends up marrying and having a family with. It’s all very fluffy and charming, unless you think about the fact that Tim’s use of his powers is highly manipulative and not a little creepy: in most situations he gains the upper hand, romantically and sexually, because he gets to undo his mistakes, but also because he gets to scope out the object of his affection like a burglar might scope out a house before he breaks and enters. Remember Groundhog Day and the way Bill Murray’s character tries to get Andie McDowell’s affection by trying to find the chinks in her armour and, in effect, spying on her? That’s what Tim does, yet in Groundhog Day Bill Murray gets slapped repeatedly for his blatant manipulations

Eventually Tim graciously stops using his powers after he’s received practically everything he wanted. He doesn’t even tell Mary about his powers – they’re a tool for him to manipulate those around him in a guilt-free way, not something to be shared with the woman you trust most. The film does qualify the lack of negative consequences of Tim’s powers somewhat in a sequence that hints at the emotional Butterfly effect the time-jumpery has, but it’s all about the outlandish conceit at the centre of the film, not about character development. It still shows practically no self-awareness that Tim’s actions, for all his ultra-British self-deprecation (remember, children, this was a kinder, gentler pre-Brexit time), may be anything other than charming and funny. Presenting manipulation and behaviour more suited to a stalker than a loving boyfriend and husband as cute and funny is by no means something rare in romantic comedy, but About Time may be one of the most egregious examples of this, seeing how oblivious the film seems to be to how this may not be the best way to conduct a trusting relationship.

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The film is on safer ground, and usually also at its most poignant, when it focuses on Tim’s relationship with his dad, who shares Tim’s powers and his goofy, self-deprecating wit. About Time has been described as a love story between a son and his father, first and foremost, and while this isn’t entirely accurate – the movie does spend most of its time on the romance – it’s where most of its heart lies. However, whatever goodwill About Time shored up in its last third didn’t help much as the film moved into its final ten minutes or so. Curtis has often been accused of peddling a certain brand of smug middle-class Britishness, and About Time is very much a case in point, the smugness just barely covered by a veneer of humility. After it veers towards drama and tragedy towards the end, the film’s script turns into an extended riff on motivational posters of the worst kind – because Tim, through his time travel and blatant manipulations, has found that he no longer needs to jump through time… because (cue sentimental indie ballad) he has learned to value each and every day for what it is. Perhaps this twee sentiment and pretense at personal growth would be easier to swallow if it wasn’t accompanied by Curtis’ worst writing since Love Actually‘s Heathrow speech:

And in the end I think I’ve learned the final lesson from my travels in time; and I’ve even gone one step further than my father did: The truth is I now don’t travel back at all, not even for the day, I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life… We’re all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.

All of this is presented as one of those simple yet deep truths – yet we look at Tim, we look at this guy who may have had one bad thing happening in his life, but otherwise he’s got a good job, a nice house, a smart and gorgeous wife, kids as cute as a button, he’s basically living the bourgeois dream, not least because he’s really good at manipulating people. I bet it took some real maturing to “relish this remarkable ride”. It might be bearable if Curtis didn’t feel the need to spell out this trite lesson (which makes me wonder if either he or his characters have ever opened a newspaper, seen a homeless person or could even spell the word “austerity”) and left the audience to formulate this themselves, but he does, and having a smart, funny, attractive, reasonably well off thirty-something who has practically everything he may want lecturing us on the pleasures of a life enjoyed for what it is… Well, the self-congratulatory earnestness of it all made me want to throw things at the TV. So, Richard Curtis, congratulations: you’ve made me feel things. You’ve made me laugh, you’ve made me sad, you’ve pissed me off and you’ve made me retch. Few other, better filmmakers have managed to manipulate my emotions quite as expertly. And you didn’t even have to travel back in time to manage.

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