There’s a phrase in French — “L’esprit de l’escalier,” meaning “staircase wit” — for that moment when you’ve lost an argument and are walking away, and waaay too late, think of the perfect comeback. If you could just rewind your life a few minutes, you’d win the argument.
That’s pretty much the setup in the new British comedy About Time.
We meet shy, young Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) as he’s making a total mess of an opportunity to kiss a girl on New Year’s Eve. But the next day, his father (Bill Nighy) tells him a family secret: The men in the family can travel back in time. All they have to do is head into a closet, close their eyes, clench their fists and think about a moment in their lives that could have gone better.
So Tim tries it, heading back to New Year’s Eve, and things go better.
“It’s going to be a complicated year,” Tim says. “It’s going to be a complicated life,” his father corrects.
True enough. Writer-director Richard Curtis — who wrote Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Notting Hill — does complicated pretty well at this point. Tim soon meets the girl of his dreams and blows the encounter completely, but after a few tries he manages to pull himself together.
All those Curtis films mentioned above feature Hugh Grant, and while this one doesn’t, Gleeson is a decent stand-in. His one true love is played by Rachel McAdams, who must be getting tired of smiling sweetly as all her leading men keep getting do-overs — four years ago in The Time Traveler’s Wife, two years ago in Woody Allen’s decade-warping Midnight in Paris, and now here. She, meanwhile, has to cope with real life.
One thing you realize as the film goes on is that time travel isn’t terribly useful for the romantic bits. Romantic comedy is all about awkwardness and bad timing, and if you can basically eliminate those by popping into a closet, there’s no tension after a while. So the story gets bland, and with Curtis being a competent but not an especially exciting director, About Time becomes a case of the bland leading the bland.
If only he could go back and try again.
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