Saturday, September 21, 2013

NY Film Festival: About Time

It seems rare, and even out of place, for the New York Film Festival to present a romantic comedy like Richard Curtis's About Time. Since its inception, and especially in the last twenty-five years or so, the festival has been known for presenting an austere lineup of international films featuring mostly dramatic, serious works. Even when the festival presented Ed Wood in 1994, that film had a serious backbone, and it was, of course, referential to the world of cult cinema.

The new film by Mr. Curtis focuses on the kind of left-of-center, eccentric British family where the mother, played by Lindsay Duncan, has developed her sense of fashion according to the tastes of the Queen, and a simple minded uncle (Richard Cordery) is always dressed to the nines every day of the year. But when it comes to strange, the best part of the family is left to the father (Bill Nighy). He reveals to his son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), when he reaches his twenty-first birthday, the family secret: that the men in the family have always been able to travel through time. They can't change history, but they are able to change what happens, and what has happened in their own life. And all of this without a TARDIS! All that's needed is a dark room, a tightening of the fists, and off they go to whatever part of their personal past they want to re-live. Needless to say, that famous British icon, the Time Lord from Gallifrey, is curiously never mentioned or alluded to.

When Tim finds out about his special power, he uses it to fix himself up with a girlfriend. When he does, he makes sure that he revisits certain scenes of his recent past often, especially when it comes to a first night of hot sex with Mary (Rachel McAdams) the American girl with whom he marries and raises a family. Their first date improves each time that Tim chooses to relive their time in bed.

Watching a scene again and again, with different outcomes, is cinematic. It puts us on the level of a Hitchcockian Rear Window voyeur watching rushes of an unfinished film, or re-watching a favorite movie where we always find something new each time we delve into it. In many ways, About Time is a bit like many of Mr. Curtis's previous films: a family dramedy filled with memorable characters forming a wider family. We follow their lives through the years, in scenes of celebration and sorrow. Somehow, we have seen it all before in his screenplay of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones's Diary. This is certainly not a criticism of the film, but an observation that his latest work is meta cinematic. and any resemblance to any of his previous films is actually not incidental. This might just be the most interesting part of the film for cinema buffs. On the other hand, if you just surrender to the story and the engaging performances by Mr. Nighy, Ms. McAdams, and especially Mr. Gleeson, whose ability with comic timing reminds us of the young Hugh Grant, you will be more than pleased by this film.

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