Film reviews: About Time | The Great Beauty

Domhnall Gleeson as Tim and Rachel McAdams as Mary in About Time. Picture: Contributed
Domhnall Gleeson as Tim and Rachel McAdams as Mary in About Time. Picture: Contributed
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The title of Richard Curtis’s latest rom-com pretty much sums up my reaction to the recent announcement of his imminent retirement from directing.

About Time(12A)

Directed by: Richard Curtis

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander

* *

As the screenwriter of megahits Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, Curtis quickly became an above-the-title brand whose worst excesses were kept (mostly) at bay by directors equipped to let his voice come through in a way that was slightly more palatable to those not attuned to his cosy, rosy, upper-middle class, Anglo-centric world view.

The moment he started bringing his own work to the big screen, however, the floodgates opened. The horrific Love Actually began by invoking the 9/11 victims’ tearful farewells to their nearest-and-dearest as a positive sign that love really is all around (things went rapidly downhill from there). The Boat That Rocked was just as insufferable, taking the revolutionary power of pop music in its 1960s heyday and reducing it to something that posh people listened to when they wanted to feel a bit naughty (even Curtis’ die-hard fans had the good grace to let the film sink without trace).

With About Time marking his third and final film in a not especially distinguished directorial career, then, it may be that Curtis has finally come to the realisation that he’s simply not been very good at calling the shots. There’s certainly an element of self-awareness about this fact in the rather insipid time-travel conceit he’s concocted. Revolving around a young barrister (Domhnall Gleeson) who learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can go back and relive moments from their own past until they get them right, the film often feels like an attempt by Curtis to pull off the same trick.

When Gleeson’s Tim is subjected to the sort of excruciating rom-com overload familiar from Curtis’s back-catalogue of cringe (embarrassing romantic encounters, overblown declarations of love, inappropriate nudity), it’s as if Curtis is using this to acknowledge how awful his filmmaking instincts have been in the past. Thus, when Tim subsequently replays these moments in slightly more sophisticated way as the action unfolds, Curtis immediately looks as if he’s capable of more subtle filmmaking.

Of course, that’s also called having your cake and eating it, and filmmakers only really get away with such things if the subsequent movie is good. About Time – while mildly less objectionable than Love Actually and The Boat That Rocked – doesn’t quite qualify on that front. For starters, the basic premise is riddled with flaws, not so much related to the inevitable paradoxes of its time-travel plot (like all such films, About Time has its own rules designed to give it some sense of internal logic), but to the fact that the hero’s time-warping abilities have a tendency to reduce the women in his life to easily manipulated puppets.

Domhnhall’s status as a bumbling, flame-haired Hugh Grant clone may offset any sense of threat, but his character’s casual manipulation of Rachel McAdams’ oblivious Mary shows how disinterested Curtis is in writing decent characters for women.

She’s the inevitable American love interest, and while she’s superficially attracted to Tim’s dopey, nervy charms, she doesn’t really seem to have much choice about whether she falls in love with him. It’s taken as read that all Tim has to do is engineer the right set of circumstances and she’ll be his forever; her interior life is so lacking in complexity that her compliance is never in any doubt. What’s more, Tim’s gallantry is further bolstered with a drama-free subplot that sees him refusing to capitalise on his abilities to bed the girl he was madly in love with as a student when she walks briefly back into his life.

It’s spectacularly dull stuff and problematic in a way that Groundhog Day – a film Curtis is clearly attempting to echo – never was. In that film, Bill Murray was stuck in time until his selfish, egotistical weatherman gradually learned to become a better person; here, Curtis is so determined to make his hero loveable from the off, Tim’s more proactive attempt to better his already charmed life can’t help but seem a little obnoxious.

In the end, though, Curtis isn’t really all that interested in the romantic shenanigans of his protagonist. As it progesses, About Time morphs into a film about fathers and sons, one replete with terminal illness, saccharine discussions about time’s preciousness, and a rare ability to render the songs of Nick Cave unlistenable for future generations.

As Tim’s dad, Nighy turns on his louche charms, but they’re not enough to hold back the tide of schmaltz Curtis is intent on unleashing. Indeed, while he may have realised the value in tempering some of his worst ideas, on this he’s unrepentant. Be thankful he’s has no plans to try it again.

New releases

The Great Beauty (15)

Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino

Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli

* * * *

You’d be hard pressed to find a director making films as beautiful, sumptuous and intriguing as Paolo Sorrentino at the moment. After his recent sojourn to the US with This Must Be the Place, the Il Divo director returns to his native Rome for an exquisite blowout set amidst the ageing dilettantes living in the city’s prosperous bohemian enclave.

Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo again takes the lead as Jeb, a snarky man-about-town. Having failed to follow through on the promise of a highly acclaimed novel 40 years earlier, he lives the life of a socialite, working as an erudite, highly paid cultural critic for the type of publication that will, more than likely, soon no longer exist. He seems perfectly content too – until the spectre of death descends upon his world and forces him gradually to confront the ennui of his existence. Sorrentino has created a remarkable vision of modern-day Rome here; it’s a place rife with conspicuous consumption, spiritual corruption and bankrupt creativity, but also lush and vibrant and easily satirized. If Il Divo cut to the glitzy heart of Italy’s political system, this looks at cultural consequences of that system in a way both withering and wondrous.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax (15)

Directed by: Jeanie Finlay

* * *

There’s nothing particularly great about the hip hop hoax examined in Jeanie Finlay’s fascinating documentary about two wannabe Scottish rappers who re-invented themselves as a Californian hip hop duo. They may have duped a few record companies and management firms into spending a decent chunk of change trying to break them to a wider audience, but what they achieved didn’t bring the industry quaking to its knees, nor did it change the way business was done. It didn’t even seem to cause much of a ripple in the media. What it did was illustrate the lengths to which some people are prepared to go to achieve what they think they want from life.

Detailing the story of how best friends Billy Boyd and Gavin Bain decided to take revenge on a music industry that had dismissed them for sounding like rapping Proclaimers, Finlay’s film shows the toll their re-invention as a rap duo called Silibil & Brains took on their lives, especially as they committed to playing their roles 24/7. As a study of fame’s false allure, it’s an intriguing film with a melancholic undercurrent.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (15)

Directed by: David Lowery

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine

* * *

Following a little too heavily in the footsteps of America’s current crop of

Terrence Malick-influenced indie auteurs (David Gordon Green, Jeff Nichols, Benh Zeitlin), David Lowery’s directorial debut initially feels about as distinctive as its purposefully murky cinematography and its half-murmured poetic voiceover narration. Stick with it, though, and there are subtleties in the storytelling and the performances that help this violent outlaw romance transcend some of its more obvious influences.

Rooney Mara is particularly intriguing as Ruth. A single mother whose devoted husband Bob (Casey Affleck) is four years into a lengthy prison sentence for an armed robbery in which she played a key role, she finds her life complicated when he makes good on a promise to break out of prison to see her and the child he’s never met. Lowery is good here at keeping the focus on the characters rather than being distracted by potential set-pieces; as a local lawman (Ben Foster) pursues Bob while simultaneously chasing Ruth’s affections, an age-old story gives way to a fresh tumult of slow-burning emotions. It’s impassioned filmmaking, and bodes well for a more original vision from Lowery further down the line.

Any Day Now (15)

Directed by: Travis Fine

Starring: Alan Cumming, Garret Dillahunt, Isaac Leyva, Frances Fisher

* * *

This 1970s-set indie melodrama about a gay couple’s attempts to adopt a teenager with Down’s syndrome has its heart in the right place. It’s just a shame so much of the film descends into cliché. Co-writer/director Travis Fine is too focused on creating a tearjerker instead of trusting us to go with the emotional flow of a moving story.

That said, the cast give it their all, particularly Alan Cumming as a brash, confident LA-based drag queen who takes in his drug-addled neighbour’s 14-year-old son (Isaac Leyva) when she abandons him to the care system. With the help of his closeted lover/lawyer (Garret Dillahunt), he soon discovers that his attempts to provide a loving environment for an unwanted child count for little in a society that views his lifestyle as abnormal and, in some cases, abhorrent.

As a polemic, the film serves a useful function at a time when global attitudes to homosexuality haven’t progressed as much as they should, but there’s just something a little too neat about how quickly and resolutely all the characters conform to type. It’s a progressive story told in a non-progressive way.

Museum Hours (12a)

Directed by: Jem Cohen

Starring: Bobby Sommer, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Ela Piplits

* * *

Executive produced by Patti Smith, Museum Hours has little to do with the punk poet’s work beyond reflecting her general passion for experimental types of performance art. Instead, this latest project from New York-based filmmaker Jem Cohen examines the role of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in the lives of the city’s inhabitants and visitors via the gentle story of a museum guard and a Canadian tourist who strike up a friendship within its hallowed walls.

As is frequently the case with Cohen’s more experimental work, he presents these characters as if they’re participants in a documentary, with Johann (Bobby Sommer) informing the camera about details of his life, his employment and his philosophical beliefs, and Cohen shooting the tentative friendship Johann strikes up with Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) vérité-style as they mingle with real people in the halls of the museum. As discussions about the purpose of art illuminate aspects of real life, the film exerts a mild grip, but not enough to make this as engaging as it could have been.

Twitter: @aliharkness