Dir: Richard Curtis
With: Rachel McAdams, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Nighy
Runtime: 123 minutes
TO some of us, certain things in life will forever remain mysteries: black holes, for example, the Schleswig-Holstein question, and the pleasure some folk derive from Richard Curtis's romcoms.
After all, there are worse things to do in life than to try to spread a little happiness. Like some slick of liquid Prozac, the British writer-director has been attempting to cheer up audiences all the way from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Love, Actually and many a point after.
His latest, About Time, is about the simple matter of love, finding it and keeping it despite all the obstacles life scatters its way. A universal tale then, but it was not long before all the old particular bugbears reared their heads. To say one needs a high tolerance for twee to enjoy About Time is like reckoning lungs are handy when it comes to breathing.
The divide Curtis creates was plain when I saw About Time at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. This was to be the surprise movie, though we did not know that yet, it being a surprise and everything.
Anticipation was intense as the audience waited for the title to come up on screen. Would it be a forthcoming Hollywood actioner or a taut little indie soon to become a big talker?
When it was revealed I confess to executing a comedy slap to the forehead and issuing a cuss word. Stick a floppy fringe on me and I could have been a Curtis character. Elsewhere others, clearly fans, nestled into their seats, purring with contentment.
Even without the opening title, it would not have taken long to realise we were in Curtis country. The location: somewhere in the south of England. The protagonists: wealthy enough to be able to afford a lovely big house, posh enough to watch films on their lawn using an old rickety projector, but not so rich as to be ghastly, and definitely not bankers. These are pleasant people, early Conran and River Cottage recipe types, the highly acceptable face of the middle classes in 21st century Britain.
One of the pillars of this clan is nice but not dim Tim (Domhnall Gleeson). Having just turned 21, Tim is called in for a chat with dad (Curtis regular, Bill Nighy). Dad tells Tim he is in possession of a super power. It's nothing silly, like being able to fly or lift cars with a single finger. Like all the men in the family, Tim has the power to time travel.
Understandably, Tim is somewhat nonplussed. He had probably been expecting to be handed a deposit on a flat in Notting Hill. Still, he applies himself to the task of getting to know this new power and using it for good. The good of his love life, that is.
Living in London and studying for the bar, Tim goes on a blind date and meets Mary (Rachel McAdams). Clearly keen on her, Tim soon finds out the true worth of his time travel powers as he goes back and forth to make their first meeting, and subsequent ones, perfect.
Curtis, writing and directing, has fun depicting the awkward first dance of love, and these early stages are the sweetest parts of the film. From there, though, the sugar levels become so high they would rot gold teeth.
So begins a game of Curtis bingo in which all the familiar elements pop up. Eyes down folks and here we go. We already have number three, the posh famil-ee. Soon to come, 66, some pop music; number 13, unlucky for some, the troubled relative (here, Tim's sister, Kit Kat, and her choice in men). Highlighter pens at the ready for knock at heaven's door, number four, the obligatory funeral; it wouldn't be Curtis bingo without man alive, number five, some swearing; and finally, legs 11, Bill Nighy dancing, disco dad style. House!
Why does this matching, hatching and dispatching set the teeth on edge so? It is, after all, the stuff of which life is made for many people. Curtis is not alone in being a bard of the middle classes. Substitute Manhattan for west London, Alec Baldwin for Bill Nighy, Scarlett Johansson for Rachel McAdams and this could be a later Woody Allen movie. The French cinema industry would disappear overnight if middle class comedies of manners were banned. Yet no-one calls these pictures twee.
Curtis's problem is that in his desire to spread cheer he does not know when to stop. He falls for his characters so hard, enjoys their company so much, that he is at a loss about when to end a scene once it has gone by its amuse-by point. So desperate is he that all should be for the best in the best of all possible worlds that he is unable to stop fussing, adding a little bit here, a lot more there. He is a tireless host, but the overall effect is tiresome.
By the end, I felt like I had been bludgeoned by a flat stick, albeit one covered in some lovely fabric from the Designers Guild. It was high time to go.