You’re not losing your mind. I am, in fact, writing about a movie that was released almost three years ago. But given that it’s a movie about getting second chances to do things right, I feel like it’s in the spirit of the movie to give it another perspective. Over the weekend, it was on in the background while I was doing some much needed spring cleaning, and holy shit is it creepy.
For those who still haven’t seen it, you can get the background (and a much rosier review) here. Basically, always charmingly befuddled guy Tim is able to travel back in time to points in his own life to get a do-over. He specifically states he wants to use this superpower to get a girlfriend. And if by the time you’re 21- years- old your largest regret is “I wish I had more dates,” you’ve either led a very good or very boring one.
But Tim’s boring goals aside, the movie has three very, very large issues:
1) Tim Basically Stalks Mary
A.A. Dowd from the A.V. Club explains it better than I can:
Yet look a little harder at this breezy, lightly melancholy confection. Isn’t there also something vaguely creepy about it? Curtis’ premise isn’t just a magical-realist plot device; it’s also something of a power fantasy. Shrewdly, the film initially brings Tim and Mary together on equal footing, allowing him to woo her honestly during a very literal blind date. That way, it’s not so strange when Tim, having accidentally erased their meet cute from existence, uses his powers to re-create the spark between them. His scheme, however, isn’t so innocuous; it entails manipulating her with her own words, rewriting her past to nudge away a competing suitor, and exaggerating his experience in the bedroom by putting their first hook-up on repeat. Sure, Bill Murray pulled similar stunts in Groundhog Day, but both the universe and Andie McDowell saw through his shit. In About Time, Tim builds a whole relationship on a foundation of deception and covertly acquired information. Without the sci-fi angle, wouldn’t that be just plain stalkerish?
Yes. If by stalkerish you mean he flat-out stalked her. That fact is explained away by Tim’s disarming combination of awkwardness and kindness. Because everyone knows if men are nice guys, they can’t possibly be a threat to women. But the fact that Tim creates his relationship with Mary using really deceptive methods only becomes a much bigger problem when you consider that:
2) Tim Never Tells Mary He Can Time Travel
During the beginning of relationships, people do a lot of weird stuff. You Google them, you interrogate your mutual friends, you go on dates with other people because nothing is official yet. These things happen. If Tim were to use his powers to get a second chance at a date, you could overlook it. As long as he eventually comes clean to Mary. Not only does that not happen in this movie, but Tim’s father specifically tells Tim not to tell anyone. Even Tim’s mother doesn’t know about her husband and son’s ability. Isn’t that fucked up?
Aside from the fact that both men presumably use their powers to affect their relationship, thus putting them in positions of power over their wives, women want to time travel too, goddamnit. So Tim works his behind- the- scenes, literal magic to change his wife’s life without her knowledge, but doesn’t give her the ability to go back to fix that pitch meeting she screwed up this morning? Or something important like getting to an ill parent in the hospital on time? Would you ever be able to forgive your spouse for holding out on you with something that big? I found out that my husband didn’t share his leftover Skittles from the movies last week, and it took me two hours to forgive him.
Of course factoring in Mary’s wants and goals into the time travel aspect would take away from Richard Curtis’ main point:
3) The Meet Cute Is The Only Important Part Of The Relationship
Remember how Tim accidentally erased his first meet cute with Mary? That’s because he had to go save his roommate’s play on opening night. A roommate who appeared to be, throughout the film, a pretty ungrateful prick. So after realizing that he could either meet Mary on a blind date or he could keep his repellent friend’s play from bombing, Tim could have easily decided to meet Mary honestly and continue with their relationship. But he doesn’t. He fixes the play, and uses the knowledge he already has about Mary to try to meet her again for the “first” time. Why the hell would anyone pick that? Other than the fact that it’s a contrived plot that needs problems to solve, it’s because the guy who brought us Love Actually is, surprisingly, more interested in setting up relationships than thinking them through.
But ignoring for a second that Tim manipulates his way into a relationship, we can look at how the relationship becomes more serious. He might have been able to get a date because of his time traveling, but, as has already been established in the film, no amount of time travel can make someone love you if they don’t. That doesn’t stop Tim from replaying his first sexual encounter with Mary until he gets it exactly right. Or from getting a second chance to meet Mary’s parents for the first time. In those cases, Tim isn’t getting back the legitimate shot he had that was taken away from him. He’s making sure that everything goes perfectly the first time because in Richard Curtis’ world that’s how you know it’s a good relationship.
And this is the fact that makes the rest of the movie seem like such a waste. It was a perfect opportunity to skewer the standard movie meet cute, but instead it reinforces the idea at every point. Even when the idea of the meet cute butts heads against the only other important relationship in the movie. Tim’s relationship with his father (played beautifully by Bill Nighy) is complex and reassuring and by Tim’s own words built on long, wasted afternoons talking or playing ping pong. It’s entirely possible that Tim’s dad used his abilities to manipulate his conversations with his son, to say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. But it hardly seems like the point. He impresses upon his son the idea that their power is best used to hoard as much time as possible. You fumbled through your first sexual encounter with a new girlfriend? You can just have sex again. You accidentally talked about oral sex when meeting the in- laws for the first time? Hopefully you’ll have years to convince them you aren’t a socially inept perv. It isn’t creepy that Tim wants to save himself some embarrassment. He actually doesn’t seem that concerned with every awkward encounter (he is after all willing to let the embarrassment of being rejected by Charlotte stand). It’s that he’s unwilling to believe that either relationship can overcome that initial embarrassment.
Instead of heeding his own movie’s advice and allowing the characters to develop in their own time, Curtis squanders all of the movie’s potential to focus on creating a few “perfect” moments. He’s so intent on showing Mary and Tim as a perfect couple that he forgot to give half of them enough agency to participate in their relationship. And he couldn’t see the forest for all the creepy, creepy trees.