About Time and Meaning

abouttimeby Jonathan Davidson

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably not an eagle.  So when my wife said that she wanted to see the romantic comedy About Time, I agreed to go, expecting a shallow yet cute film that would hopefully make me laugh.  Later, I saw the trailer and profoundly regretted my decision.  Not only was it a romantic comedy—which real men can handle, enjoy even—but a time traveling romantic comedy. What at first appeared to be a noble, healthy duck from a good bloodline now looked like a crippled duck with laryngitis, quacking into the void of Hollywood creativity.

Faced with watching Ender’s Game by myself or a potential train wreck of genre mixing with my gorgeous wife, I capitulated.  And far from cringing at a train wreck, I smiled often, laughed frequently, learned a life lesson that I still think about every day, and to my complete astonishment, cried more than at any other time in my life.

Richard Curtis, responsible for Love Actually, Notting Hill, and many other successful stories, wrote and directed About Time.  Such a record of success has allowed him to join the privileged ranks of filmmakers who are able to write and direct their own work. Thankfully, there seems to be a trend toward allowing talented writers to oversee the entire creative development of their stories.  Richard Curtis, Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuarón, James Cameron, and select others have gained this level of trust from the studios and have released a string of runaway successes.  Perhaps this single-author control leads to better stories, preventing the mission creep and mangling that can occur when producers, directors, lead actors and executives tinker with the material.  Indeed, About Time feels as if it were crafted by someone who cared deeply about every detail of the story, no matter how inconsequential.

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About Time starts by establishing the flat-line life of twenty-one-year-old, gangly, redheaded Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson).  Shortly after a New Year’s Eve party, Tim’s father (Bill Nighy) pulls him aside and explains that men in the family have always had the ability to travel through time. Of course, Tim thinks his father has gone mad.  Yet after successfully time traveling, Tim wants to learn more.  The film quickly distinguishes itself from lesser time traveling stories by building unique restraints around Tim’s ability.  This avoids so many of the clichés that could have swiftly ruined the film.  For instance, Tim’s father explains that he can only travel back through his own lifetime.  Thus, Tim can’t go back and marry Helen of Troy or assassinate Hitler or do any of the other neat yet predictable things that come to mind.  Naturally, Tim wants to use the power for money, but his father quickly dispels this notion by pointing out how fabulous wealth ruined various ancestors.  Clichés dealt with, Tim’s father shares his advice: use this power to do what truly makes you happy.  And what would make an average, gangly, redhead truly happy?  Love, of course.

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Pleasantly awkward and insecure, yet emboldened by his ability to step back in time and try a different tact, Tim thoroughly embarrasses himself in pursuit of a girlfriend, leading to a lot of the comedy one might expect from the premise. At first, I feared the film would fall apart at this juncture, descending into a ridiculous parade of sexual exploits. Yet in the same way that this film distinguishes itself from other time traveling stories by striving for originality, it surprised me with Tim’s gentlemanly attempts to charm women.  Tim finally meets his equal in Mary (Rachel McAdams), a shy, geeky yet beautiful woman who hates parties and shares Tim’s discomfort when dealing with strangers. Immediately smitten and thoroughly determined to win her affection, Tim uses the fullness of his time travel ability to make sure everything goes just right. Together they fall into a truly authentic, humorous and touching romance.

abouttime01About Time further distinguishes its originality by celebrating normal introverts. Most movies have a “hero,” which by definition suggests one who passes through the world with a charming, skillful ease. Such stories often portray introverts as boring hermits to be pitied and laughed at, or at best for their geeky usefulness when the world is at stake and the only person who can save the day is a quirky programmer. About Time accurately depicts introverts as those who tire of crowds, parties and strangers, but who come alive as creative, humorous, kind and thoughtful people when together with close friends, family, or one on one.  While all these qualities make About Time an unusually good film, what makes it truly soar is Richard Curtis’s grasp of a very undervalued storytelling technique. Of all the advice given to aspiring writers, perhaps the most frequent is, “Good stories arise from conflict.” Thus, novice storytellers detail epic battles, chase scenes and constant arguments, chasing down as much conflict and as high of stakes as possible in an attempt to craft exciting stories. Yet veteran storytellers know that there’s another story element that’s equally if not more important than conflict: connection. We certainly deal with conflict in our lives and we’re wired to be fascinated by watching others fight through its ravages. Yet we feel even stronger vicarious emotions when characters connect to each other in surprising and inspiring ways. Consider Les Misérables. Certainly, it has its share of conflict, but its most memorable moments arise from connection, such as when Bishop Myriel forgives Jean Valjean for stealing his silverware, a gesture that has more impact on Jean Valjean than the vastly disproportionate amount of conflict he has endured.

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In the same way, About Time has several such startlingly poignant moments of connection. The quality of one such moment—the one that reduced me to crying harder than I ever have in my life—shocked me with its tenderness and made me long for the ability to step back in time. I experienced in real life the tragedy that befalls Tim, yet here I am, drawn along by the unstoppable pull of time, vibrantly unable to do anything about it. But even if loss has largely passed you by, there’s little doubt this moment of profound human connection will leave you unaffected.  The film ends by imparting a lesson so simple yet profound that I have thought about it almost every day since seeing the film. I can’t tell you what it is, for that would ruin the experience of realizing it for yourself. But don’t worry. You won’t miss it. And if applied, every day of your life will be significantly richer.  Obviously, I was completely taken by this film. And, as always, my wife was right (why do I ever question her?) Sometime when your heart is open and you want to enjoy a thoughtful journey through love, time, and meaning, watch this film.