Richard Curtis is known for romantic comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, which he wrote, and Love Actually, which he wrote and directed. But science fiction and fantasy fans needn't fret just because he's drifting into their realm with the amusing, entertaining About Time, in which a man magically visits his past.
Sure, Curtis hasn't thought through some of his paradoxical plot developments as carefully as, say, Robert Heinlein might have. But this is assured work. About Time, which Curtis wrote and directed, succeeds because of the well-crafted jokes, vivid characters and appealing performances. The fantasy element is prominent, but mainly it's there to set up many funny scenes and a few poignant ones.
About Time stars Domhnall Gleeson as Tim, a young man who, as the film begins, lives with his parents and sister in a Cornish seaside house. When Tim comes of age, his father (Bill Nighy) shares a secret: The men of the family can travel in time -- but only to earlier parts of their lives. Nighy's performance is a low-key pleasure, and much is revealed about his character, and probably about England, when he discloses that he mainly has used his powers to reread Dickens.
Tim goes to work as a lawyer in London, where he encounters a young woman named Mary (Rachel McAdams) in a meet-cute that takes place at one of those pitch-black restaurants. Then Tim and Mary go through familiar romantic phases -- familiar, except that Tim uses his powers to erase embarrassing courtship gaffes. It's a trick that would come in handy for anyone who's ever been on a first date. Like Hugh Grant before him, Gleeson is a charming, self-deprecating romantic lead, and he made me laugh a lot. McAdams gives a less nuanced performance, but she's a lovely, smiling screen presence.
The film's two-hour running time is filled out with vignettes that shed interesting light on the fantasy premise. Tim uses his gift to promote the career of a cranky playwright friend (Tom Hollander) and, in a subplot that verges on maudlin, to help his sister (Lydia Wilson) with her bad habits.
About Time may remind you of Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day, another comic fantasy about a man who relives his life's events. Groundhog Day is a darker film, and a better one. It's likely a masterpiece, in fact. It considers its supernatural ideas more carefully than About Time does, and really gets at the stark loneliness that's inherent in its conceit. About Time, on the other hand, doesn't worry about the frankly disturbing implications of the premise, and it concludes with pop-psych musing that's straight out of Tuesdays With Morrie. Still, it's a fun ride getting there.