I’m going to present you a scenario: imagine your girlfriend doesn’t want to go to the theatre with you. You really want to go, but she’s tired and doesn’t really like plays. She nicely tells you to find someone else to go with. What do you do? Call up a friend and have a nice time, realizing that time apart makes your relationship stronger? Insist that she goes and expands her horizons? Don’t go to the theatre and stay home with her? Or do you use the night out as an opportunity to passive-aggressively chat up the “one that got away” and nearly cheat on your sleeping girlfriend before you run home and romantically propose to her, now that you haven’t fucked someone else for no good reason? In the universe as we know it, you would probably choose one of the first three options, because those aren’t so bad and none of them make you look like an entitled prick. In the world of About Time, however, there is only the last option. That’s the answer to every question.
Written and directed by Love Actually’s Richard Curtis, About Time presents us with a world where men can be instantly let off the hook for indiscretions because of their ability to beat the system. The protagonist of About Time, Tim, is blessed with the genetic gift of time travel, which his father (played by the always wonderful Bill Nighy) tells him not to use for any kind of financial reward. This only leads to unhappiness. Instead, his son should use this privilege to enjoy life, smell the roses, and take it all one day at a time, in the grand tradition of bumper stickers.
Tim quickly informs us that “it was always going to be about love,” basically proclaiming that he will use a gift that could make the world a better place to get laid by hot chicks. Although we’re supposed to find the bumbling Tim (played by Domnhall Gleeson) romantic and charming, his behavior comes off as obsessive and stalkerish, like Ted Mosby on steroids. After having an impossibly quirky meet-cute with Mary (Rachel McAdams), guy loses girl, but then guy waits for girl in a week at a Kate Moss photography exhibit he knows she will show up to. Her character is obsessed with Moss, because the screenplay says she is, and because the narrative needs them to run into each other again. Otherwise there’s no movie.
The problem is that due to complicated time-travel shenanigans (that I won’t get into), she doesn’t know who he is yet. As far as she’s concerned, they’ve never met before. When he eventually finds her again, it turns out that she has a boyfriend, a whirlwind romance that has developed in the time he’s been looking for her. Because Tim saw her first, he goes back in time to reclaim her. He hunts her down at a party in the past, and they go on what she believes to be their first date. To make the most out of it, Tim continues to travel back to this same night until he gets the whole evening exactly right. If he says something stupid, he can use time travel to take it back. When the sex is bad, he can do a better job next time.
Groundhog Day employed this same technique; constantly reliving the same day allowed Bill Murray to gain intel on the object of his affections in order to get into her pants. What Groundhog Day proved, though, was that no amount of inside information could win him Andie MacDowell’s loins; MacDowell was too smart for his game, and the movie was smart enough to call him on his bullshit. But About Time doesn’t seem to realize that Tim’s shit stinks, allowing him to reverse engineer a perfect relationship, no matter how many women he has to lie to in the process. The message seems to be that if a girl has a boyfriend or puts you in the Friend Zone, you should stalk her and then use your time-travel powers to go back and emotionally manipulate her until she marries you. It’s endless love, as written by the Men’s Rights subreddit.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Rachel McAdams has fallen in love with a time traveler. Eric Bana beat Domnhall Gleeson to it in Robert Schwentke’s 2009 adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife. As bad as that movie was, Bana’s character at least had the decency to be honest to his girlfriend. In terms of sharing things about yourself, the fact that you have Doctor Who powers is a major detail, but About Time just brushes it aside, as if it’s not necessary information. What about when Tim and Mary have children? Does Tim plan to explain to her then that their sons are gifted with an unusual gene? How about telling her that their entire relationship is based on a lie, when he went back and redacted her boyfriend from spacetime?
Exploring these questions could have made for interesting dramatic conflict. Michel Gondry’s 2004 masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind provided a look at the ways in which trying to perfect the past by wiping your failed relationship clean rids us of the transcendent suffering that makes us human. Using technology as a power play on women didn’t work out for Elijah Wood, but here the message is more mixed. Tim finds out that he cannot rid others of pain, but it’s his own ideals that need the most fixing.
About Time plays as a mash-up of Curtis’ previous films, amounting to a maximalist statement of the power of love. According to Curtis, love can conquer all, even time, but he misses the most crucial aspect of love: honesty. Otherwise it’s not love — it’s Stockholm Syndrome.