You would be forgiven for expecting a romantic comedy. Richard Curtis, the director of About Time, is a rom-com legend who wrote the screenplays for Notting Hill, both Bridget Jones movies, and (his masterpiece) Love Actually. Rachel McAdams, the female lead, is no stranger to the genre (Morning Glory, Wedding Crashers, and, though it’s not a -com, The Notebook). The credentials are impeachable here, and that’s before we even get to the ads:
The overhead shot of two people lying in bed with the covers up to their necks is like the international sign for “rom-com.” This has meet-cute written all over it.
To be fair to About Time, McAdams and her (very charming) male counterpart Domhnall Gleeson certainly do meet cute, and it is indeed a sentimental movie about love. If you enjoy Ben Folds songs and family bonding, then you will certainly be crying by the end of the film. But we are exact genre scientists, and it must be said, very plainly: About Time is not a rom-com.
A rom-com has very specific rules: The two protagonists must meet in an unusual way; they must feel an instant spark; there must be obstacles in their way (one is dating someone else, or they hate each other). They spar for the better part of two hours, often with a publishing-related subplot, and only at the end of the movie do they admit their feelings. The first half of About Time adheres to this form, but with a clever (structurally, anyway) twist: since Tim (Gleeson) has the ability to time-travel, he restarts the courtship every time something goes wrong. Boneheaded comment? He just goes back in time to fix it. Mediocre sex? Travels back and does it again. The fits and starts of your average movie relationship are still there; it’s just that only one person is aware of them. You can see the rest of the rom-com taking shape — eventually he’ll fuck up the time travel and erase everything that’s good, or Mary (McAdams) will learn about his time-traveling abilities and dump him. He’ll learn that all good relationships are based on trust or whatever, and he’ll travel back in time to start all over again. Perfect!
Without spoiling the entirety of About Time, this is not what happens. There are almost no obstacles once Tim and Mary get together, and once they do — well before the 90-minute mark — the movie spins out into a meditation on family, and, to quote Vulture’s David Edelstein, “the importance of living every moment fully,” and all sorts of other feel-good, Love Actually-esque lessons. Tim has to deal with his little sister’s problems. There are some time-travel lessons to be learned. There’s a cute thing with a kid and a paper shredder and Ian McEwan, though Mary gets pretty mad about it. All of this is told lovingly, but the movie violates the basic rom-com structure, and there is no suspense (not even fake movie suspense) about whether our two heroes will end up together. Which might be okay: Sometimes it is nice to get lost in a happy world where Bill Nighy makes dad jokes and everyone loves one another forever. It’s still a decent date-night pick. But just to repeat, so you’re know what you’re getting: It’s not a rom-com.