About Time is a romantic comedy where the power of time travel offers the chance for life-changing do-overs a la Groundhog Day. Director Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) uses the sci-fi conceit for laughs, suspense and to make that familiar point about the importance of living in the now. The result is a touching — and heavily sentimental — story that melds swoony romance with father-son tearjerker.
Unlike Groundhog Day, the lead male character isn't a cynical jerk, but rather a sweet-natured young Brit named Tim who's about to leave the nest and embark on his career as a lawyer. When we meet him, Tim is a lanky, ginger-haired 21-year-old who learns from his father (the remarkable Bill Nighy) that he can travel back in time. Not just any time — rather, moments in his own life. Soon, he’s using this power to woo a woman (Rachel McAdams) he met in a pitch-black restaurant. Wearing a shaggy haircut with fringe, Mary is the girl who doesn’t realize just how beautiful she is. It’s unfortunate that Curtis frames Mary in this way, because it appears to downplay the power of her sexuality and supports the idea that the only woman a non-matinee idol can find romance with is the one who doesn’t know she can do better.
After a time-travel episode screws up his first meet-cute with Mary, Tim uses his knowledge of the present to go back in time and manipulate Mary into falling in love with him. Because the pair had hit it off so well upon their first meeting, we can overlook Tim's excessive, fastidious use of his power. Unlike Groundhog Day, About Time doesn’t address the ethics or creepiness of what Tim is doing. This isn’t a minor point, but it doesn’t distract from the power of sentimentality and romance that is the core of the film.
Curtis gives Tim an out from dealing with the ramifications of his time-skipping by having a rule set for him: Once he has a child, he can’t go back in time to any day before the birth. This rule is a means to an end — the end being some moving sequences that are all the more effective for being so low key, particularly as played by Nighy.
Curtis’s time-travel construct is full of holes, but that's a longstanding trait of such films. He never explains what happens to the people left behind as Tim goes to “fix” each timeline. I don’t mind the lack of explanation, but it’s reasonable to find it too pat and convenient. At its core, though, About Time isn't about time travel but rather living in the now. The witty, funny dialogue, affecting performances and abundance of heart more than make up for the film’s flaws.