Time travel can be a nifty device for stirring and complicating romantic drama. Just ask the small but dedicated cult that regards the Christopher Reeve-Jane Seymour weepie “Somewhere in Time” as being a Reeve signature equal to “Superman.” “The Time Traveler’s Wife” offered some satisfying pathos a few years back, casting Eric Bana as a man whose strange temporal abilities were a genetic burden causing angst for him and soulmate Rachel McAdams. Even the H.G. Wells-Jack the Ripper mash-up, “Time After Time,” complements its clever crossover gimmick with a nice touch of imperiled romance between Malcolm McDowell’s Wells and modern gal Mary Steenburgen.
Add writer-director Richard Curtis’s addictively sentimental “About Time” to the list, albeit as an entry that slightly tweaks the genre formula. Curtis, whose credits include “Love Actually” and the script for “Notting Hill,” spins the tale of a frequently tongue-tied everyguy whose ability to revisit moments in his own life is about getting things right, not inadvertently throwing things off. Oh, the possibilities the story imagines – and oh, the heartache that inevitably arises just the same.
Domhnall Gleeson (last year’s “Anna Karenina”) has a breakout role as Tim, who at 21 is told by his dad (Bill Nighy, all loose-limbed affability) how all the men in their family inexplicably have the power to hit rewind. Dad’s neatly streamlined breakdown: duck into a dark closet, concentrate for a tick, and back they go. Brilliant, thinks Tim – just the thing he needs to smooth over his klutziness and nervous rambling and get a girlfriend.
The quest carries on longer than planned, with Tim still scoping and hoping as he journeys from the lived-in family seaside spread to London’s bright lights and daunting dating scene. Eventually he meets a pretty, similarly awkward American girl, Mary (McAdams, back in familiar territory), clearing the usual rom-com hurdles with that great little trick of his. We get to see their instant attraction play out a few times running, and it couldn’t be more charming. Gleeson is consistently appealing as Curtis’s new, de facto Hugh Grant stand-in (the same halting likability, with a dash of Ron Weasley thrown in). Meanwhile, McAdams’s easy sweetness again makes us wish she’d opt for forced brassy roles less often.
As it turns out, the young couple’s love story is only part of a broader family portrait and lifestyle commentary that Curtis is after. Subtly, we’re shown that Tim is maturing. As he does, his time-tinkering and the implications of it all take us to deeper places, including paternal mortality and a moment of fear for his own young child that’s gut-wrenchingly palpable.
Cynics might resist. And certainly, Curtis doesn’t fret about getting too precious or stylistically gauzy. He pushes hard for something memorable with a wedding in the rain, putting a smile on a classic, nagging “if only” lament. But it works. There’s some broad quirkiness geared for easy chuckles, but Lydia Wilson does nice work playing sprightly as Tim sister, Kit Kat (see what we mean?), and Tom Hollander is very funny as a profanely ill-tempered literati snob and family friend.
Similarly, the themes that Curtis gradually develops aren’t so much profound as simple sentiments we’ve all heard before: Don’t sweat the small stuff, say, and don’t worry, be happy. But Curtis and his actors put these familiar affirmations to us so agreeably, so earnestly, it can feel as though we’re hearing them for the first time.