The Decade’s Most Underrated Dramedy Reinvented the Time-Travel Genre

This film is one of the best romantic comedies of the 2010s.

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Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson in 'About Time'
Universal Pictures
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What would you do if you could go back in time and fix some of your past mistakes? That question has been at the center of more than a few stone-cold sci-fi classics, and it’s easy to see why. It’s something that everyone, no matter who they are, has spent some time thinking about. Would you ask out the person you secretly had a crush on for years? Or would you use your extra time to land your dream job?

2013’s About Time isn’t the first film to give its protagonist the chance to explore all of those possibilities, but few movies have ever approached the very idea of time travel from as grounded a place as it. Despite its sci-fi elements, the film actively refuses to get bogged down in the kind of technical questions present in so many of its genre predecessors’ plots. The film treats its hero’s time-travel abilities as little more than a magical device — one designed to accommodate About Time’s many ideas about love, life, and the slipperiness of the present.

It’s a high-concept, sci-fi romance the likes of which are hardly made these days, and 10 years after its release, the film feels even more strikingly original now than it did in 2013.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis, About Time follows Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man who is told by his father, James (an unforgettable Bill Nighy), on his 21st birthday that all the men in their family can travel back in time. When Tim responds with disbelief, James explains that they both have the ability to change and relive any of their past moments, but that they can’t go into the future or back before they were born. It doesn’t take long for Tim to realize that everything his father has told him is, indeed, true.

In the wake of this discovery, Tim decides to use his abilities to live as fulfilling a life as he can. Throughout the movie, that requires him to use his powers to not only secure a date with the love of his life, Mary (Rachel McAdams, as effortlessly charming as ever), but also help his playwright friend, Harry (a scene-stealing Tom Hollander), and his troubled sister, Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). Behind the camera, Curtis brings his trademark romantic, playful touch to all of Tim’s time-travel adventures. In doing so, he makes the film feel of a piece with all of his past directorial and screenwriting efforts (namely, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Narratively, tonally, and even aesthetically, About Time is as romantic as any movie that Curtis has ever made. Cinematographer John Guleserian brings a warm tone to the film’s look, one that is matched by the compassion that Curtis extends to every one of About Time’s characters. The film is excessively kind, but it manages to be that way without ever veering too far into the same saccharine or overly goofy places as Curtis’ 2003 directorial debut, Love Actually. As fantastical as its premise may be, About Time masterfully rides the line between optimistic and realistic, and that’s what makes the film’s more emotional moments so impactful.

The time travel in About Time isn’t so much a vehicle for sci-fi shenanigans as it is a vessel for the film’s own, often profound ideas about the nature of life on Earth.

Universal Pictures

While there are instances throughout it when About Time feels a bit like a fairytale, what ultimately elevates the film above Hollywood’s usual rom-com and time travel fare is its overwhelming humanity. Watching the movie, one gets the sense that Curtis has poured every remaining ounce of romance, hope, and wit he has left into it. The result is a time-travel film that contains just as many time-bending hijinks as sci-fi fans may want, but which uses its genre elements not to relitigate the past but to emphasize how important it is to embrace and celebrate the present.

The route About Time takes to get to that conclusion is occasionally wacky and frequently moving. Consequently, even though some may have initially brushed it off as nothing more than a familiar studio rom-com, the past 10 years have proven just how original and enduring About Time really is. It’s a movie that defies nearly every time-travel trope and even goes so far as to question the purpose of sci-fi stories like it. As a result, the film deserves to not only be considered one of the best rom-coms of the past 15 years but also a contemporary time travel classic.

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