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Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is only 21 when he learns that he — like all the other men in his family — has the ability to time travel, should it so appeal to him. And appeal to him it does because the idea of an endless string of do-overs means an endless ability to make things right where it really counts: his failing love life. Richard Curtis’ charming 2013 dramedy “About Time” starts there, with a relatable concept tucked inside a decidedly out-there one, as Tim uses his newfound genetic gift to try to get himself laid.
No, it’s not the most altruistic aim, but it does ground Curtis’ film — his most darling feature since 2003’s “Love, Actually,” if not his most darling outing ever — in a wholly accessible idea. Who wouldn’t want to go back in time to fix the past — to tweak an embarrassing interaction or smooth over a bad conversation? Those are the questions that guide Tim’s journey, as it evolves from small scenes (kissing a girl at a New Year’s Eve party after biffing it his last go-round) to attempting to change his beloved sister’s seemingly tragic fate, all while grappling with the limitations of his gift. Inevitably, there are screw-ups, many of them sprung from well-intentioned ideas about “fixing” the past to alter the present into something bigger and better (or, at least, happier). That Tim (and his dad, played by a pitch perfect Bill Nighy) is able to jump into a dark corner, ball his fists up really tight, and wish himself into the past seems like the answer to anything and everything.
It’s not. While Curtis’ film is often able to use Tim’s condition for pure delight — most of it involving his eventual love affair with Mary (Rachel McAdams); “About Time” includes both a hilarious sex scene and a romantic proposal that owe much to Tim’s ability to keeping doing things until he gets them right — it is also unafraid to mine the dark side of it. Every time travel story has a few rules to keep things ticking, and “About Time” is no different, though Curtis takes his own time unspooling what will become the central sticking point for Tim.
While the first half of “About Time” is dedicated to Tim’s pursuit of romance, his eventual domestic bliss is what inspires the hardest of truths and (no big spoilers here!) ultimately forces him to evaluate how and when he travels. In short, there are limits, and returning to certain periods of his life is suddenly impossible, forever. And while not everything these days is necessarily about our “new normal” or how we grapple with limitations we never could have expected even weeks ago, Tim’s attempts to acclimate can’t help but feel terribly familiar today.
And yet, there is hope. While Tim can’t suddenly zing and zip through time as much as he would like — and, as we also learn, like Nighy’s James used to — he can appreciate the present. It’s the whole point of all that time traveling, isn’t it? To make things right for the right now. Tim’s actual life, his real present, is messy and imperfect and scary as ever. But there’s a reason why Tim can’t jump into the future: the present is all he has.
Curtis, working at the height of his screenwriting powers, develops this lesson in literal terms, with James teaching his son to do what he’s done for so many years: live each day twice, once the regular way, and again in a state of deep appreciation for all its wonders. It’s a reminder to appreciate everything tangible and real, but one that has taken on added resonance in a world where the present is among the few things anyone can control, or at least take an active part in. The past is gone, the future might not come, but the present is here.
“About Time” is now streaming on Netflix.