Saturday, January 4, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoileriffic Review of About Time

Tim (no last name I guess?) has the unusual ability to travel back to any point in his life. You and I do not, therefore, if you wish to read more, you must read after the break.

While time travel is usually a trope of the science fiction or fantasy genre, to call About Time either of those would place a weight on it that it doesn't really need to bear. Even calling it magical realism is a bit of a stretch; Tim (Dohmnall Gleeson) is an ordinary (albeit very British) boy from an ordinary (although unusually harmonious) family, who just happens to relive a day or two or every now and then. He has a Dad, named dad, and played by Billy Nighy; his mom Mum played by Lindsay Duncan; and his wildcap sister Kit Kat, played by Wilson. And one shouldn't forget Uncle D (Richard Cordery).

When Tim turns 21, after a rather disappointing New Years, his father tells him that the men in his family have the ability to travel back to any point in their lives, muck around a bit, and come back and see what happened. There's never any explanation for this ability, scientific or otherwise, nor any particular explanation (besides plot convenience) why only the men in the family seem to manifest it. This is not the kind of film where that sort of thing is important. When asked to what ends he put his miraculous power, Dad replies that he's read a lot of good books. Tim is similarly ambitious. When life hands him miraculous powers, he does not use them to place bets in his favor and become massively rich, or go around preventing global disasters; rather, he wants to use his powers to get a girlfriend--or rather, in romantic comedy fashion that's heavy on the romantic, find true love. And after a failed attempt (played by Margot Robbie) he does just that, with Mary, played by Rachel McAdams.

The problem is, he fails at that too; after performing a time-traveling good deed for a friend, he accidentally erases ever meeting her, except in his memory. These are the moments when, narratively, the film is at its strongest--when Tim's powers mean that he has to choose between loved ones. Will he push his sister's life in a good direction if it means losing his child for a stranger? (The odds of a particular sperm impregnating an egg are thousands to one, so every time he travels back before one of his children are born, another one is born instead.) Will he have another child, if it means never being able to go back and see departed loved ones again? Luckily, in this first instance, by staking out her favorite art exhibit, Tim does indeed run into Mary again--but with a newly discovered boyfriend in tow. By careful, repeated manipulation of time, he meets her before she gets together with the new fellow, gives her a good first date, and some really good sex.

This, incidentally, is as close as the film ever gets to that level of uncomfortable manipulation. There's a lot of downright creepy aspects to time travel, given the type that Tim can access. Is it morally acceptable for Tim to break up a relationship because he really it off with her first, even if she no longer remembers? Maybe not, but well, they wind up happy enough, so ends justify means. But it does open the door for some questions that the film has no intention of answering. If you had Tim's powers, would you be above using them to push life in your favor? To play through a first date a few times if it doesn't go well? To skip back before a major argument so that it never happens? To erase your major mistakes as they happen so they don't go on to have a big impact on your life? And if you did that, what kind of person would you wind up being? If, for example, you go back before that major argument, you can't erase your own memory of it--the emotions they stirred up are still in your memory. So how would you feel towards the person who stirred up such feelings, who said such hurtful things--especially knowing intellectually, if not emotionally, that you can't even show you're angry at them anymore, because they didn't say those things at all? Maybe nothing, if that happens once. But there's nothing to keep it from happening again, and eventually, I think that sort of repressed toxicity would start to grow. Moreover, what kind of person would you be if you never had to worry about any mistakes, as long as they weren't fatal? And how would you treat people on a moment by moment basis if you knew that if any moment went too poorly, you wouldn't have to live with it? There's a point in the movie where Tim chooses not to go bed with an old flame; if he did, and went back and didn't, did it happen at all? In his head it did, but it would be easy enough to rationalize that if no one knows, it didn't happen; people without the benefit of time travel do it all the time. In the film Groundhog Day, Billy Murray is subjected to the same 24 hour period and eventually uses it to become the best possible version of himself, although not before giving debauchery and suicide a try first; a cynical interpretation could be that he turned to altruism only after running out of other alternatives. If you had the power to go back at will and change things permanently to your liking, what kind of person would you be?

According to About Time, essentially, you would be Tim and his dad. Both kind, good-hearted men who do what they can for their family and friends, and try to leave the rest of the world to proceed as it sees fit. That the film doesn't question that this is the best use of their powers may be its failing. In fact, it not only doesn't question it, it out-right states it: Tim's dad says that the best use of his powers is to live each day twice, once normally, once appreciating it for the wonder it is. And in an ending every bit as soppy, Tim declares that he goes one step further, and never uses his power at all--he just lives every day as if it was that second time around. And like I said, you could blame the film for taking such a line, but personally, I think you have to take the film for what it is: a romance. About Time isn't a romance in the typical sense, as it's not really about Tim and Mary; it's a romance of the family, albeit a white, middle-class British family. In essence, it's a film that says if you have ability to travel through time and make good on your mistakes, to see your own life from another point of view, you'd eventually reach the point where you'd be living your best possible life, and never do anything you'd regret enough to change. That's such a positive view of humanity at large that it's a hard one to reject--even if it is white, middle-class, and British.

About Time is a very British interpretation of the romantic comedy, and time travel, where the edgier, raunchier possibilities are sanded away very diligently in exchange for endless tea time and ping pong tourneys. And it's earnest; my God is it earnest. It knows it's slightly cornball and embarrassing, and it's slightly embarrassed about that, but by gum, it's going to be earnest anyway. I had forgotten going in that it was written by the same guy who wrote Notting Hill, but that's very fitting, because this movie is absolutely the movie equivalent of Hugh Grant. It's sweet, and simple, and the time travel conceit gives it just enough zest to keep it from being bland.

...I'll tell you this for free, though: if I could go back to any moment of my life at any time and revise it as I see fit, I probably would not be writing a blog post about a romantic comedy I watched alone on a Friday night. And yet here we are.

Later Days.

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