Even the most hardened cynics must admit: It has been a high-water season for movies. Between “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “All Is Lost” and “Captain Phillips,” the words “masterpiece” and “four stars” are being bestowed as promiscuously as Halloween candy.
“About Time” may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a superb achievement nonetheless. As a warm, appealing and uncommonly intelligent dark horse within a stable of overachieving thoroughbreds, this unconventional romantic comedy possesses its own modesty, charm and thoroughly disarming earnestness. It would be a shame if “About Time” were overlooked amid its showier peers. This movie deserves an audience as big — and big-hearted — as its own spirit.
As “About Time” opens, its protagonist, Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), is living at a huge, pink, eclectically appointed seaside manse in Cornwall with his parents (Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan) and sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson). Desperate for a girlfriend but, according to his own voice-over description, “too tall, too skinny and too orange,” Tim is informed by his father about a long-held family secret: Once they turn 21, the men in the family acquire the ability to travel back in time, a power that comes with its own arcane logic and scientific rules. (“You can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy,” dad explains dryly.) But Tim can go back to fateful moments in his own life and become more suave, more sexy, more sensitive. His first act, it turns out, is to return to last night’s New Year’s Eve party and do something kind.
That gesture introduces viewers to the gentle and unfailingly compassionate emotional gestalt of “About Time,” which was written and directed by Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill,” “Love Actually”). The gawky, ginger-haired Gleeson — familiar to most viewers as Bill Weasley from the “Harry Potter” movies — is perfectly adorkable as a perpetually lovelorn leading man who may not be above conniving self-interest but never succumbs to crude selfishness or cruelty.
When Tim — now living in London — meets a fetching American named Mary (Rachel McAdams), the romantic fulcrum of “About Time” ratchets fully into gear, as the story turns on whether McAdams will play yet another time traveler’s wife.
Admittedly, the film shares some bloodlines with “Groundhog Day” and “Sliding Doors” and their cinematic multiverses of contingencies, what-ifs and near-misses. But Curtis manages to throw a series of spanners into the works — digressions and feints that turn “About Time” into something altogether deeper and more moving than a conventional rom-com. Perhaps more accurately, he has made a fam-com, a meditation on fatherhood, connection, sacrifice and simple, enduring love that sneaks up on the audience and blooms, like a slow-burning catch in the throat.
That’s not to say that “About Time” doesn’t hit all the expected romantic pleasure centers, because it does. The locales — from that marvelous Cornish beach to a chic Kate Moss exhibit in London and all those comfy Sunday lunches — are fabulous, as is the most gorgeous mess of a wedding ever staged on-screen. Curtis delivers some of his finest dialogue in a script full of witty, observant lines that feel lived-in and real, and he exhibits an equally dab hand with a soundtrack that includes choice cuts from Nick Cave, Ron Sexsmith and others.
There are some confusing moments, as when Tim’s chronological origami folds in on itself a few too many times to be coherent. And Curtis seems stymied by how to end his movie, a structural hazard for a story in which nothing ever really ends. Despite those flaws, “About Time” doesn’t just deliver on its promise of romance and wish-fulfillment, but does so with the added value of winsome sincerity. Thanks to Gleeson’s and McAdams’s exuberant and wonderfully spontaneous central performances and Nighy’s now dependable dash of understated zest, “About Time” becomes something rare and radiant — a cozy, flossy and escapist love story suffused with ache and a hard-earned, quiet wisdom. If you have the time to see “About Time,” you’ll like “About Time,” and it will make you think about time, in unexpected and surprisingly profound ways.
★ ★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity and some sexual content. 123 minutes.