The sexual misdemeanour that casts a long shadow over Richard Curtis's About Time

The time travel element in <em>About Time</em>, Richard Curtis's new comedy, has produced a disastrous scene that should be studied by future generations as the wrong way to deploy a theoretically rich comic device.

I come to you today not to review Richard Curtis’s new film About Time but rather to scrutinise one of its most revealingly misjudged scenes. Not that I am wholeheartedly negative about this curious movie. Despite loathing the previous two pictures from this writer-director (The Boat That Rocked and Love, Actually), I can see that About Time is a progression of sorts for Curtis.

One of his cleverest moves was to choose the pink-and-perky Domhnall Gleeson to play Tim, the budding lawyer who is told on his 21st birthday by his father (Bill Nighy) that all the men in their family have the ability to travel through time — just within their own lifetime, that is, and only backwards to events that have already happened and then forwards again to the present day. A very British sort of time-travel, in other words. Though Gleeson himself is Irish — he’s the son of the great character actor Brendan Gleeson — he is playing an easily flummoxed, self-deprecating Englishman. The sort of part that Hugh Grant should think about taking on once he has tired of portraying grizzled vigilantes and depraved porn barons.

Gleeson is vital to any success the film can claim. Whatever blatant manipulations it engineers (and there are a lot), it helps to have a lead actor of unimpeachable sweetness and integrity. Gleeson can certainly play scuzzy (have a look at his cameo in the Coen brothers’ True Grit or his lead role as a rural misfit-turned-pimp in the little-seen Sensation) but here he is blemishless and sincere, without being boring. He blinks into the dazzling light of every opportunity like a new-born baby.

That brings me to one of the scenes which the film gets so badly wrong. In a weightless comedy, tone is everything, and the slightest wobble can distribute through the rest of the movie shockwaves from which it can be hard to recover. That’s what happens when Tim returns home with Mary (Rachel McAdams) with the intention of sleeping with her for the first time. Unfortunately, all does not go to plan, and the experience is over rather more quickly than might have been hoped. So Tim uses his unique powers to rewrite his sexual history before the ink is even dry: he rewinds time to earlier in the evening so that he can emerge with more prestige from his first time in bed with Mary. He has sex with her again. And again.  

When I first saw the scene in isolation, I laughed. In that context, it works, because we don’t know if the balance will be restored — if Mary will find out what happened and be incensed, or if there will be some manner of poetic justice. But she doesn’t. And there isn’t. So within the film, it’s destabilising. It kills the comedy.

Mary is not aware of Tim’s powers at all — it’s a bizarre narrative demarcation that women in Curtis’s movie are neither capable of time-travel nor even cognisant of its existence. So while Tim knows that he has had sex with Mary multiple times, and we have been let in on that secret, she is oblivious. Let’s look at that again outside the context of romantic comedy: a man has sex with a woman multiple times without her consent (or rather, with her consent given only once) and without her knowledge. Has Tim not committed something that would play in any other genre as date-rape? He just happens to use time-travel rather than Rohypnol. (Read Nicholson Baker’s The Fermata, in which the main character’s ability to freeze time enables him to ogle and even grope women, and you will see the same situation played honestly.)

Of course, no one demands that fictional characters in any genre should maintain high moral standards. Some of the greatest of all comedies (Elaine May’s A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid or Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Some Like It Hot) feature people behaving despicably, all without any cost to our enjoyment. If anything, that moral dimension adds weight and risk to every laugh. But where About Time goes wrong is in applying no implied critical voice, no sceptical distance, to Tim’s actions.

To see how badly Curtis messes up, it is helpful to look at another movie which gets the same scenario exactly right. In Groundhog Day, the misanthropic Phil (Bill Murray) also experiences a temporal anomaly, though in his case it is not a super-power but a punishment: he’s trapped in a time-loop and forced to relive the same day over and over for many years, even decades. Phil uses the curse of repetition to gain precisely the same nature of carnal advantage that Tim engineers for himself. We see him in one scene grilling a woman for biographical details about her school days, so that when he sees her the “next” day (though for her, it is the first time she is experiencing that day) he can use the information he has harvested to provide a conversational “in”. By the evening, he has wormed his way into her bed.

In theory, it is the same scenario as About Time, with an identical reliance on the privileged knowledge shared by audience and hero. The key difference is that Phil is a repugnant character at that point in the film, with a long road to self-improvement ahead of him, and Bill Murray is a master in bringing infinite gradations to his sleaziness. Tim, on the other hand, is held up at all times as a delightful and charming boy-next-door type whose worst flaw is that he puts his foot in his mouth once in a while. This leaves his sexual misdemeanour unchecked, his conduct unchallenged.

Add to this Tim’s own control over the narrative (he has the privilege of voiceover, which Phil in Groundhog Day does not) and it becomes clear that the film has denied itself the facility to comment in any way on Tim’s lack of propriety, his effective rape of Mary for our entertainment. Without the amoral pantomime of a Bill Murray-type as a get-out clause (we may like Murray but we’re not supposed to approve of his actions), the audience is invited only to applaud Tim’s actions. In this instance, Domhnall Gleeson’s charm not only cannot save the scene, it actively exacerbates its horrors: we cannot square our general sympathy for him with what he’s done.

Mary is none the wiser. It’s bad enough that Curtis has neglected to write her as a proper human being: her characteristics are to be loving and supportive to Tim and to produce his children, which are not actually characteristics at all. Any choice she makes about their relationship cannot be based on the full set of facts about the sort of person he is. Reader, she marries him.

Curtis wrote a similar scene, hinging on a woman being oblivious to the exact nature of her sexual relationship with a man, in the most unsavoury part of The Boat That Rocked. But that was generally a grubby picture, so perhaps the mistake didn’t cast quite the long shadow that it does over About Time, which is in many other ways gentle and compassionate. That disastrous scene in the new movie, though, is not without value. It should be singled out in film studies classes, and played alongside its counterpart in Groundhog Day, as an example of where a theoretically rich comic device can become so severely devalued in practice.

About Time is released on 4 September.

Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson as Mary and Tim in About Time.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

MURRAY CLOSE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era