On the eve of moving to London to begin his career as a lawyer, young Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is called in for a talk with his father (Bill Nighy). The subject, entirely surprisingly for Tim, is time travel. Dad tells him that all the men in their family have had the ability to travel back into the past, although within limits. You “can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately.” No, this gift can be used only for things one personally wants, his father says — “to make life great.”
Over the past 20 years — as a writer (“Notting Hill,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral“) and, infrequently, a director of his own scripts (“Love Actually“) — Richard Curtis has perfected a distinctively sparkly brand of romantic comedy. He’s unapologetically sentimental, happy to head right for the heartstrings; but he’s also witty in an often memorable way, and it’s difficult to imagine that even the most rom-com-resistant viewer will be able to completely resist “About Time,” Curtis’ latest film (and the last he’ll direct, he says). Introducing a sci-fi element into this tale about love among the well-to-do freshens the formula, and the actors sail away on the new possibilities.
Arriving in London, Tim moves in with a family friend, a grumpy blocked playwright, named Harry (Tom Hollander). Tim always has been awkward with women, but in a unique meet-cute scene, he makes the acquaintance of Mary (Rachel McAdams), an endearingly odd young woman (she’s obsessed with Kate Moss) who works in publishing. Unfortunately, Mary has recently acquired a boyfriend. When? Tim asks. And exactly where? Furnished with this information, he ducks into a closet and makes his way back into the recent past. When he returns, Mary is all his.
The plot has a well-turned simplicity that could be dismissed as corn if it weren’t so undeniably entertaining. The utility of time travel is inventively demonstrated (it’s especially handy for rewriting romantic failures), and when its possibilities hit a wall at the end, the solicitation of tears feels — in rom-com terms — justified.
Nighy, appearing in his third Curtis film, is pricelessly comical. With his eloquent slouch, he circles his lines as if still working out how best to deploy them. And Gleeson, who previously featured in “True Grit” and the last two “Harry Potter” films, reveals winning touch that should make him much better-known soon. Some of the characters are underdeveloped — principally Richard Cordery, as a fubsy uncle, and Lydia Wilson, as Tim’s vaguely troubled sister. But McAdams is adorability incarnate, and several of the supporting players — especially Hollander, who’s wonderfully sour — are given small showcase moments of their own. The movie may seem too pat, too carefully constructed. But it has a smooth, easy charm and a romantic glow that’s hard to deny.