About Time is a film I was vaguely interested in seeing, but due to a packed film schedule in the fall it managed to elude me during its theatrical run. It’s the type of film for which I constantly saw previews while in the theater over the course of 2013, and I had made a mental note to make sure to catch up with it once it hit home video. The Richard Curtis (he of Blackadder and various Hugh Grant films like Love Actually and Notting Hill) written and directed project stars Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan, seen in Anna Karenina, Never Let Me Go and the last two Harry Potter films) as Tim, a young Brit whose one goal in a decidedly listless life is to find a girlfriend and fall in love. Things get complicated when his father (Bill Nighy, famous for being Bill Nighy) explains to him that the men of his family (but not the women) can travel in time. After moving to London, Tim happens across a lovely American girl named Mary (Rachel McAdams) and uses his newfound gifts to help him along as he courts her.
There's a lot about this film that makes me think Richard Curtis is a misogynist hiding in plain sight, and it’s not just that the women in Tim’s family randomly don’t share the gift of time travel the men have. Underneath (or more accurately on top of) all the charming Britishness of Bill Nighy and Domhnall Gleeson and Curtis' colloquialisms is the story of a man who uses his own desires (be they motivated by positive emotions or not) to essentially turn everyone around him into objects that he molds to suit his image of what they need to be in disguise of what he thinks he needs to be to please them. He (and by extension the audience) sees his constant tweaking of his life via minor time travel as an endearing way to fall in love with McAdams’ character, who he first meets in a legitimately charming meet-cute which is erased from his timeline due to his casual abuse of his family's time travel powers to meddle with events that have nothing to do with her. In actuality, this is a man who pointedly lies to her face and abuses his powers to find out the perfect things to tell her in order to make her fall for him. Tim is Patrick, Elijah Wood’s character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who stole information about Clementine in order to manufacture an emotional connection which may or may not be there. Patrick was a scoundrel, a depraved and dishonest man who was one of the true villains of that film. These are the actions of a sociopath.
In this manner, About Time not only shares some qualities with Eternal Sunshine, but is also quite similar to a more recent and much (much) better film, 2012's Ruby Sparks. That movie represents a much more explicit look at the concept of molding a woman in your image of what you want her to be, positioning itself as a rebellion against the manic pixie dream girl tendencies of films like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State, often the result of lazy writing that had a tendency to treat women simply as a formula to complete the man's desires. In Ruby Sparks, this took the form of Paul Dano explicitly writing how his manic pixie dream girl would (should?) act, only to find he had created her in real life out of his novel, and has retained some sense of control via the power of his typewriter rewriting scenes from his life. There are tangible consequences for this bad behavior that indicate writer Zoe Kazan has an understanding of what people like this actually are at their core in the moment, regardless of their motivations for doing what they do. And it is thus a catalyst for change, or at the very least self-reflection. Both About Time and Ruby Sparks are about manipulation, but where Kazan makes sure to consider the dark side of it all, Curtis revels in About Time’s Britishness and charm, confronting these themes through a completely different lens that further marginalizes McAdams' character and then skips off into the sunset with the sort of weepy feel good climax you expect from a film with Richard Curtis' name on it.
It's possible that I would have been able to see past this weakness, foundational as it may be. The actors are all great (Bill Nighy remains a treasure among treasures) and Curtis generally knows how to write and shoot films like this to make them work despite formative misgivings. It's why I still like Love Actually on some instinctual level, despite it having enough problems with which to fill a book (many of those problems, especially regarding men’s relation to women, are repeated here). But it's the laughable and insulting manner in which Curtis treats the central time travel gimmick that puts it over the top (under the bottom?). Rules are established and broken basically immediately in the most perfunctory way. Everything Tim is told he cannot do he does, sometimes in the scene immediately following the rule’s establishment. Depending on the tone of a film and the verve of a script, it can be possible to play fast and loose with a foundational gimmick and still work (Back to the Future is a wonderful example of this; time travel in that film is completely at the whim of what the script needs it to be at the current moment, continuity be damned, but they manage to pull it off), but About Time is beyond the pale.
The third act hinges on the one rule Tim seemingly can’t break, and how it affects his relationship with his father. This is all well and good, and indicates that Curtis is going to make the trope pay off, if not for the fact that what he does to nail home the emotional climax of the film and make the trope pay off is in direct violation of the rules he set up in order to get his characters to that point in the plot in the first place. It’s a logical inconsistency that cannot be overcome. The entire idea folds like a house of cards. But Tim still has the girl so fundamentally everything is okay (that’s all he ever wanted, remember), no matter how manipulative he has been in order to get her and how apparently oblivious he is of the moral implications of what his life and relationship has become. What this all adds up to is a deadening and deeply cynical piece of male-focused wish fulfillment that honestly makes me want to reevaluate everything else Richard Curtis has given us (in his post-Blackadder years at least). About Time is like peering behind the curtain, and nothing good can be found there.