Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The cutest meet, and other About Time thoughts

About Time has one of the more clever titles of the year, in terms of double meanings.

Not only are you getting a colloquial phrase, which is always useful when coming up with a title -- as in "It's about time you got here!" -- but it also works on a very literal level, in the sense that the movie is about the concept of time.

Having seen the movie, I also think the title is a sad sort of admission about the film's aimlessness. The fact that it's "about time" is about all it can be sure of. Writer-director Richard Curtis might have said "I'm going to make a movie that's about time," and then decided he was going to throw in every loose thread of an idea he could think of that was related to that topic. That's the way this movie plays, anyway: all over the place.

Which isn't to say it doesn't have some nice moments, one of which I want to tell you about here, before proceeding to some other thoughts on the film.

You know about the concept of a "meet cute," right? Of course you do -- you weren't born yesterday. But on the off chance that this is just your second day of life on this planet, a "meet cute" is the way a film's two romantic leads are first introduced to each other, executed with maximum possible cuteness so we are invested in them from the start. A meet cute usually involves a spilled drink or a dropped stack of papers or two people trying to squeeze through the same closing elevator doors at the same time.

In short, it's as tired as anything else you usually see in your typical romantic comedy.

Except not in About Time, which has its romantic leads meet in a scene of total darkness that runs for about three minutes.

What happens is that the male lead, whose story we are following and who is played by some chap named Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son), and his friend go to dinner in one of those restaurants where it's pitch black. You know, where a blind waiter leads you to your table (because why not, in a pitch-black restaurant) and you wear the clothes you are least worried about staining with errant food.

This is where he meets Rachel McAdams, who is then only known through her voice. He (Tim by name) and she (Mary by name) strike up a conversation because, well, who wouldn't want to overcompensate for being blind by talking giddily with your neighbor about the absurd circumstances you currently find yourself in?

They hit it off, of course -- I don't say "of course" out of exasperation, but only because if they didn't, there would be no movie.

What I really like about this scene is that a) Curtis sticks with it for an impressively long time, just total blackness with only a few little glints of light to give us the indication that glasses and silverware are moving around, and b) it allows the characters to get to know each others' personalities, without their faces causing an undue bias one way or another.

Few romantic comedies, then, can compellingly argue that the characters have truly made a soul connection, one that isn't informed by sexual attraction. It's a smart move, especially since Tim has spent the first 15 minutes of the movie obsessed with a blond beauty who may not have offered a lot more than her looks.

Also, I just know I'd want to pass a 90-minute dinner in total darkness with a fellow equally bemused traveler ... especially if her voice sounded cute.

But ...

From another time

... I couldn't help feeling that most of this movie was stuck in another time. One of the strangest examples was in this initial conversation in the dark, where Mary reveals that she is a huge fan of Kate Moss.

You're saying it to yourself right now, aren't you? "Kate Moss, the fashion model? The one at least partly responsible for the term 'heroin chic'?"

Yes, that one.

Another common crutch in romantic comedies is that one of the characters has a thing he or she is obsessed with that he or she keeps on talking about. For example, for some reason I can remember that John Cusack's character in the otherwise forgettable Must Love Dogs is always talking about Dr. Zhivago. That is about the oddest thing for even a steel-trap movie brain like mine to remember.

Well, the function of this obsession is both to give the character depth and soul, and to ground them in our real world.

And to love Kate Moss does either of these things how, exactly?

If the idea is that Mary loves fashion, which I'm not sure it is, then why not have her be obsessed with a designer, rather than a model? That would at least indicate that she admires an overtly creative person, rather than someone who poses in front of a camera. Sure, being a model is a kind of creativity ... just not the type of creativity a self-actualized character like Mary is supposed to value. I mean, we're not talking about an icon like Marilyn Monroe here ... we're talking about a woman who is the poster child for eating disorders.

Even more problematic than the type of person Mary admires is the era from which she comes. Kate Moss is nearly 40 today, and nobody is talking about her anymore. Sure, some number of years pass over the course of About Time, so it's reasonable to assume that the pitch-black dinner scene takes place at a time when Moss was slightly more relevant. Still, it seems more like the script was written at a time when Moss was more relevant, not that Curtis intentionally tried to find something that would have, I don't know, 2004 relevance. And if he were specifically doing that, why Moss?

I also thought it was strange that the movie features The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" (1992), but soundtracks get a little more leeway.

The strangest sort of typecasting

About halfway through I realized that this makes the second movie in which Rachel McAdams has played the romantic interest of a man who secretly time travels within his own life.

The other is, of course, The Time Traveler's Wife, another sort-of failure of a movie that's starting to look a bit better the more I think about About Time.

The question, then, is did McAdams seek out more work as the befuddled partner of a man who has trouble explaining his whereabouts because she liked it so much, or did Curtis and his team seek out McAdams because of her work in TTTW?

Yeah, I don't know, but it's gotta be more than just a coincidence.

The type of expatriate American I want to be

As I was watching the film, which is set in England, I marveled at how little of a deal they made over the fact that McAdams is the only American in the movie. (Other than her parents, who make a single stiff appearance in an odd and pointless scene.)

In fact, the only mention of her nationality whatsoever is when said parents are about to make a surprise visit, and nervous Tim, who has just been told her parents don't know he exists, stammers, "Parents? American parents?"

Lord knows this movie is dealing with enough other issues that it needn't linger on why McAdams doesn't talk like everybody else. (The fact that they just as easily could have cast her role with a British actress lends more credence to the notion that McAdams is getting typecast.) Still, I thought it was strange that they just completely ignored what was almost an elephant in the room.

Strange, and wonderful.

See, now that I'm the different one living here in Australia, I'm looking for whatever ways I can to deemphasize how very American I must seem to the locals. I'm conscious of the fact that I can't fake an Australian accent, although one day I hope to be able to do so convincingly, just for general purposes. So I'm acutely aware that every time I open my mouth, the other person will take at least a moment to have the following truth pass through his/her frontal lobe: "The person I'm speaking to is American." And whatever associations they have with that truth will also take a moment to pass through.

I'm hoping that the longer I live here, the less I will care about my inescapable American origins, and that the longer America continues to progress down the correct path politically, the less it will matter that I'm American.

Those are both good things to root for.

The other elephant in this post ...

... is the fact that I've written an ungodly number of words on a romantic comedy that's too ambitious for its own good without even really mentioning the thing that sets it apart, genre-wise: the time travel.

The less said, the better.

The fact that there are conundrums is, of course, a given. The fact that some new rules are going to pop up along the way is a matter of course.

The fact that so little truly interesting happens with the time travel is what's problematic.

Curtis seems far more interested in dramatizing examples of his time travel gimmick -- utterly pointless examples on occasion -- than using them to serve the greater good of his dramatic conflict. That could be because there are a few scattered dramatic conflicts, but no main one that thrusts through the whole narrative. That's what gives the film its palpable sense of flying off in all directions at once.

Because he's wanking around with all these time travel tricks, it creates the film's biggest problem, which is that the romantic female lead, Mary, is inessential to the dramatic thrust of the movie. The third act crisis -- such as there is one -- does not involve her. In fact, after wrapping her up pretty early, the movie effectively sidelines her.

We were talking earlier about tired romantic comedy tropes, but they became tropes for a reason. For example, by the end of the second act, the duped romantic lead -- because most movie romances have been going along on some sort of false pretenses -- must discover the way in which he or she has been duped. Because the guy (or girl) doing the duping is a good person, he or she definitely made an attempt to come clean earlier, but was conveniently interrupted mid-confession and never got back to it. That one is an age-old trick as well. He/she doesn't get back to it in time, then must scramble to win back his/her love after his/her betrayal has been revealed in all its ugly glory.

Except not in About Time.

In fact, Mary never finds out that Tim is a time traveler. She never finds out that Tim seriously manipulated her, Groundhog Day-style, into loving him, using her controversial love of Kate Moss as an in to get to know her better. (See, he has to meet her again after inadvertently wiping out the pitch-black dinner through time meddling.) So he gets away with being kind of creepy, which is pretty darn unsatisfying for the viewer.

I gave About Time 3.5 stars yesterday on Letterboxd, but having written this post, I'm wondering if the whole movie isn't this unsatisfying.

Good thing I don't have to time travel to change my star rating.

1 comment:

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah. The Rachel McAdams character really is the film's foremost downfall, isn't it? Which is a shame. I think she's better than such a simple-minded character. I mean, everything you say about her is accurate and wholly problematic and were things I was acutely aware of while watching the film and yet......

I did like the way it used time travel to comment on the passage of time within our lives, as I indicated in my own review. Part of that, though, might have to do with thoughts I've been having in regards to my own life. Which isn't necessarily fair criteria for judging the film. But a man watches a movie and he is that man.

Also, it's really cool that you're getting the permanently displaced American experience. I'm sure it can be tough, as you allude to, but still interesting. A unique perspective to have.