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.

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories