About Time - A Personal View review

Our production editor Russell Lewin doesn't much like Richard Curtis's latest...

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About Time is the most vile, vapid, repugnant, hideous, ghastly, awful, sick-making, bile-forming, stupid, pitiful and manipulative film ever made. And yes, I’ve seen Love Actually .

We can only hope that this will be the last of Richard Curtis’s vomit sprays onto celluloid – he’s thankfully indicated as much. About Time is horrendous, truly horrendous, a foul boil on Britain’s bottom, a disaster and a disease and a disgrace.

The template is so similar to other Curtis films it’s offensive: we have the diffident male lead going after the cute American in an unreal London; we have the “eccentric” uncle; we have the upper middle class family who live in the sticks; we have the kooky friends and sister; we have a wedding, births, a death. It’s all so screamingly obvious, so moronically familiar, so insultingly predictable.

Because he has his template Curtis doesn’t bother with proper characterisation: the lead character has a sister, but although she later has big life problems we’ve learnt nothing about her. So why should we care about her? But the film tells us we have to care about her, because the soundtrack has for the umpteenth time just been invaded by some saccharine, horrible, mawkish song or piece of incidental music designed not so much as tug your heart strings but rip them out your bleeding body.

Oh but Richard Curtis is great with dialogue, some will say – his one-liners are priceless. No, they’re not. An example: the eccentric uncle character has just learned that a couple are going to get married, and that the woman is also pregnant. They are sitting round a table with the rest of the family. Everybody is happy. Then the eccentric uncle character says to the male “who are you getting married to?” Hah hah. Then he says to the female character “who is the father of the baby?” Oh my sides. This is not humour, this is inventing an inane character to say inane things, for the sake of it. Read PG Wodehouse to see how to do these things properly.

And Curtis also leans heavily on pointless, redundant comic setpieces. One long sequence has the wife trying on a number of different dresses while the husband despairs whether she’s ever going to settle on one. And of course at the end she picks the first dress she put on. How is this innovative? How is this even comedy? Curtis insults his audience time after time.

One single setpiece has a small amount of merit, a wedding party being soaked to the skin by the Scottish weather. It’s nicely shot and, for once, the accompanying music is bearable. But even this seems so contrived, so fake, Curtis ticking his little boxes of what he has to get in.

And his characters do not behave in anything resembling a believable manner. Of scores of examples I could give, here’s one: the lead character has just met a girl at an art gallery, and behaves in a very weird way towards her (because in an alternate timeline he has already met her - she obviously has no knowledge of this). She has a new boyfriend in this timeline, who then enters the room (she also has a female friend with her). And then, the lead character proceeds to ask a number of detailed questions about how and when they met. Rather than thinking “who is this weirdo? Let’s leave now”, they tell him everything. The female friend even gives the exact London address of the party where the pair met the week before! Why would she do that?! She wouldn’t! The only reason she does is because Curtis needs her to so he can then send his lead character back in time to that exact address at that exact time so he can win the girl before she is wooed by another.

Curtis is still writing scenes that he was nearly 20 years ago on Four Weddings And A Funeral . There was quite an amusing one in that when a chap meets another at a wedding. What happened to that so-and-so girl you were going out with, one asks. Oh, I’m not going out with her any more, the other replies. Good thing too, the other retorts, she was also shagging another bloke. Er, she’s my wife now, says the other. Cue social embarrassment and a laugh from us. Curtis rewrites this for a wedding scene here but it doesn’t work. He has one [perennially grumpy] character refuse to sign his autograph (he’s an author) for an elderly lady, and rudely rants about why it wouldn’t be appropriate. Lead character Tim then steps in and says “Oh, this is my Aunty May.” But of course it would be someone like “Aunty May”, it was Tim’s wedding, there’d be close family and friends there. You wouldn’t speak rudely in this manner to anyone like this at such a gathering. That the person asking for an autograph was revealed to be a family friend should not have been significant. This is not comedy. This scene simply does not work – and there are many more like them.

At first we wonder whether we are meant to be behind Tim because he’s an underdog, a nerdy try-er failing to get the girl or get on in life. Maybe we’re going to be rooting for him in his various quests, as we do in many age-old narratives (or Spider-Man). But no, not only does Tim take to the high strata of the legal profession with an ease which defies belief, he gets the girl with consummate ease. Rachel McAdams’s Mary is such a push-over conquest it’s laughable; but then her character is so paper-thin it’s laughable. This is a character you cannot imagine doing things like working for a living; there’s not the slightest attempt to give her any sort of depth.

The story goes nowhere, it doesn’t build. It ambles and stutters, leading at length towards a simple message that you should seize the day and love your dad. The time travel idea is, of course, not especially important, it’s a device. This may be just as well as it’s absurd that these characters can flit about in time and only ever effect one single thing that they want to, without effecting anything else (in most cases). A single line of dialogue about the butterfly effect not appearing to be significant is all we get to explain it. It’s a worse get-out than even Steven Moffat has ever attempted.

With six uses of the F-word and numerous other uses of crude language it’s also incredible that the BBFC has chosen to pass this at 12A (it’s appropriately rated R in the States). The strong language only serves to underline the fact that Curtis’s stuff isn’t sweet, it’s not Sunday-afternoon nice; beneath the sickly sweet veneer is spikiness and cynicism. The cynicism is of course more evident in its repellent attempts to get the audience to choke up either when things go, oooh, all serious, or, ooh, all cute.

Cinema doesn’t get much uglier than About Time . Scripts don’t get more hackneyed, storytelling more lazy, performances more arch. The tragedy is that people will pay money to go and see this, probably in considerable numbers. Richard Curtis will become richer. He’ll be noted as having notched up another “hit” and one day will probably be feted as a statesman of British cinema. That’s more infuriating than even About Time , and that’s saying something.

Russell Lewin

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