“About Time” about Looking Hard Enough

I don’t get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot
Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles and falls
Brought me here

“The Luckiest,” Ben Folds

The second time around Dad says about his son Tim at Tim’s wedding:

I’d only give one piece of advice to anyone marrying. We’re all quite similar in the end. We all get old and tell the same tales too many times. But try and marry someone kind. And this is a kind man with a good heart.

I’m not particularly proud of many things in my life, but I am very proud to be the father of my son.

It is easy to be tricked into believing that Richard Curtis’s About Time is yet another derivative British romantic/comedy from the director/writer responsible for Notting Hill, Love Actually, and The Girl in the Cafe—especially with Rachel McAdams in the rain on the film poster:

About Time

Yes, this film has more than echoes of lines and characters from Curtis’s filmography (which I must confess is among my favorite), and the film is both romantic and funny, the sort of charming British funny I find perfect in Curtis’s movie along with his ability to walk that thin line between cheesy and genuinely sweet, always remaining on the right side.

But the opening scene quoted above between Dad (Bill Nighy) and Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) captures that About Time is about the human condition and the human heart—and ultimately about looking hard enough.

The major difference in this Curtis production is that Tim discovers on his twenty-first birthday that he is part of a lineage of men who can time travel. Like romance, time travel in films is ripe for bungling, but Curtis has joined for me a small group of works that allow the time travel trope to enhance a much greater purpose: Kurt Vonnegut’s rip-roaring Slaughterhouse-Five and David Lynch’s time wrap-around metamorphosis Lost Highways, just to name two in which time travel is central but dwarfed by larger elements.

In About Time, time travel allows the bumbling and lonely Tim to sharpen that kindness that his father loves; without his ability to re-do, Tim would have been nothing more than a sad butt of his own jokes for the length of a film.

Instead, Tim finds, loses, and finds again Mary (Rachel McAdams)—and that happens very early and quickly in the film. That is our first hint that this film is not mainly about Tim and Mary (although their story is quite sweet, quirky, and endearing).

As Tim becomes a husband and father himself, the narrative returns again and again to Dad and Tim—men bound by a private gift (or curse) and by the very human frailty most men share, the inability to engage emotionally with the world and other people in ways that are full and healthy. Even when most things are good and should be easy to manage on an emotional level.

The plot has ample moments of tension, of the very real possibility of disaster, and Tim discovers that his time traveling has incredibly difficult limitations along with quite a few opportunities for Tim to set things right (the first sex scene is predictable, but still quite good, mostly because we come to like Tim and Mary).

About Time is a beautiful and bittersweet film, and time travel gradually reveals itself to Tim and the audience as merely a device for the central argument of the film—one that Tim explains in voice-over through lessons from Dad:

And so he told me his secret formula for happiness. Part one of the two part plan was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else.

But then came part two of Dad’s plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing. Okay, Dad. Let’s give it a go.

As Tim comes to understand his father’s secret formula, About Time reveals that it belongs in another lineage along with well done time travel works—those works that return to the scene between Emily and the Stage Director in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as I examined in relationship with Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers:

In Wilder’s play, Emily grows from childhood to falling in love to marriage and to her own too-early death. By the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

We can now add because of About Time, it seems, time travelers also:

And in the end I think I’ve learned the final lesson from my travels in time; and I’ve even gone one step further than my father did: The truth is I now don’t travel back at all, not even for the day, I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day, to enjoy it, as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.

The human condition is fraught with difficulties, and often the greatest truths sound simple while they continue to elude us. I’m not optimistic this latest cry for each of us to “look at everything hard enough” will work, and I’m also not even sure we’d do it right if we all could travel back in time for another shot—as Dad and Tim do so well in the film.

But I am sure that About Time speaks about and to the human heart in a way that reminds us of the most wonderful moments of being fully human. It is the sort of film that makes me want to lie close to the one I love watching the film, maybe for the 16th time—like a scene from Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man: “What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also, reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence.”

Life is but one chance, and nothing is guaranteed. Being human is only bittersweet and we are always better for having looked hard enough, for reaching out and holding on.

It is ours to kiss that first time, to say “I love you,” or course, without needing a second chance:

Tim: I used to think my phone was old and shit, but it’s suddenly my most valuable possession.
Mary: You really like me? Even my frock?
Tim: I love your frock.
Mary: And, um, my hair. It’s not too brown?
Tim: I love brown.
Mary: My fringe is new.
Tim: Your fringe is perfect. Fringe is the best fit.

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