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REVIEW: A young man, after turning 21, learns from his father that the men in his family possess a very special gift: they can go back in time. It’s a family secret only the men know. The one caveat is that it works only in their own lives. They can’t alter history or go back before they were born. To enjoy the story one must let go of the premise and simply accept it as the characters do in the film. Like Groundhog Day (the inevitable comparison), it doesn’t try to offer explanation and is more interested in the outcome rather than the origin.
Dad (Bill Nighy) is a bit of an eccentric, perhaps from his lifelong dabbling in time travel, but is infinitely charming and deeply loves his son, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson). He quite reasonably shares a fond relationship with his boy, and that is one of the film’s highlights and should have been more explored. But, since this is from the minds of those who brought us a slew of British Rom-Coms, we must ride along with his romance of the lovely Rachel McAdams instead. The movie plays with the predictable and turns them into a few surprises, wisely keeping the story and magic grounded by the reality of the consequences.
Scene Setup: While this is a spoiler zone, we dare not give away why or how this moment comes to be. Suffice to say that Tim has been traveling back in time to spend time with his father, but this day will be his last. If he returns again, the future for Tim will be altered.
Why it Matters: Dad is a good man and has mastered the use of time travel, seeing it not as a method for improving his lot, but to better understand life itself. He lives every day twice, once to experience the joys and sorrows of existence and again to appreciate how important they are. Notice his exuberance in every second that passes with his son. He is a man fully aware of how special his gift is. Notice how the camera seems late to the meeting, climbing up the stairs into the room, a nice touch by the director. Watch how later, it takes a position far removed from them while at the beach. We are observers and should not be privy to the intimacy of a father and son in this moment together.
More: The makers of this movie are well aware of how this type of film is meant to be made and stick to many of the more successful tropes, especially in the meet-cute and dating sequences. The twist of timetravel adds a bit of fun, but at it’s core, could have easily been dismissed and still been effective. The relationships are all well developed, if not standard, with the actors embracing them fully. This is especially so for Bill Nighy, who is typically fun to watch. He sells the time traveling element so perfectly that we stop thinking about how it happens and just watch what happens. The movie is about love, and we are led down the well-trodden path throughout the movie believing it to be about the love of a man and a woman. And while that is central to the movie, it is this scene, our chosen That Moment In that reveals this is a much deeper story. The film spends most of its time in the trappings of the genre but spares a moment to reveal the film’s broader message. It immediately shifts the viewers perception and while this may be a good or bad thing, it left us wishing there could have been more.
We’ll start with time travel. We’re not going to say it’s always handled all that well here. Loop holes are as big as wormholes and the time travel “rules” seem a little lax in service of the story. The movie can’t resist using it for a few cutesy moments in Tim’s pursuit of Mary (McAdams), but it is mostly used for Tim to learn how actions have repercussions. And to build the relationship with his father.
We’re gonna pause here and admit that yes, of course we tried exactly what they did in the movie to see if we could time travel too. Don’t deny you wouldn’t either. No, we didn’t go back in time, but we did discover that standing with our eyes closed in a dark closet with our hands clenched will prompt a few questionable concerns from loved ones. And more than a few pharmaceutical recommendations.
The movie actually does fare better than the average movie of this genre. Tim has a troubled sister that can’t seem to find her way, leading to some unexpected and dramatic choices for Tim. There is some humor in his attempts to save a quirky and insecure playwright that is mostly forgettable, and of course he woos the beautiful Mary.
All of these are presented with some attempt at lifting the material out of its niche. But not all. The movie seems to know that it wants to tell a different story but is trapped in the pattern it is supposed to follow, offering scenes that come up far short of the rest. Case in point, this silly montage that just fails uncomfortably. Warning: We are not responsible for any damage this will cause your monitor after you are overcome by a need to smash it.
The trailer doesn’t hide the fact that there is something wrong with Dad, and we won’t reveal it here. It is one of many problems Tim must face and decide how to use his gift to not exactly fix, but live through. He discovers there are repercussions that he simply cannot avoid, which alters another path. There are also some things that no amount of time travel will ever change. Bill Nighy is compelling in the role, and there is a tenderness he possesses that shines through perfectly here (similarly to his comedic charm in Curtis’ Love Actually). With our knowledge that he has spent a lifetime time traveling, we sense that weight in him. He has perhaps seen and changed things he both applauds and regrets. Image having this gift and waiting twenty-one years to finally share it with your coming-of-age son.
He is a man with whom there are few surprises. Time has been rendered nearly irrelevant yet immeasurably treasured.
We haven’t talked about Rachel McAdam much. It should be noted that this is her third time-traveling themed movie. That must qualify her for something. A membership card or at least a Delorean.
She is appropriately perky and inspiring for our hero, fulfilling her role with the usual playful sexiness and awkwardness that populates dozens of these kinds of films. She has tremendous appeal, even though she seems to be playing down her beauty with a less than flattering hairstyle (which is noted in the movie – see image, left). While she is marketed as the star and is central to the entire film, she is, in our opinion, the most easily replaceable.
Domhnall Gleason (Tim), perhaps best known for parts in the Harry Potter series, is playing the Hugh Grant role here, which is not a criticism. He is appealing and has the boyish quality fundamental to these movies. He carries the film well and is especially good with Bill Nighy.
As with any romantic comedy, there is a lot of music to accompany our lovers and set the mood for their adventures. We were surprised to hear one of our favorites, Nick Cave, a mad man genius on the soundtrack. His tune, Into My Arms, was also featured a long time ago in the criminally underrated Zero Effect (we’ll get to that one later). Take a listen:
Nick Cave – Into My Arms
And after re-watching the movie to choose That Moment In, we found ourselves with this tune stuck in our heads, a decent cover of Mike Scott’s (The Waterboys) How Long Will I Love You?
Jon Boden (singer) – How Long Will I Love You?
Writer/Director Richard Curtis has made a career of making sentimental romance movies, mostly to great success. Like all of his films, the story holds priority over logic and this one might task viewers with swallowing a bit more than usual with the use of time travel. We were initially reluctant based simply on the box art and trailer, giving a collective *sigh* at the thought of another predictable romantic comedy. And yes, it does ultimately suffer in many respects, but the movie is better than it is packaged and has a depth that should be surprising to those thinking they are watching a typical rom-com. Nick-Laird-Clowes produces a gentle and moving score that compliments the pace and atmosphere.
And while the story is a familiar one, it is the relationship between Tim and his father that stays with the viewer.