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‘About Time’: Time-travel romance starts funny, ends sappy

‘ABOUT TIME’ ★★1⁄2

Tim Domhnall Gleeson

Mary Rachel McAdams

Tim’s dad Bill Nighy

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Richard Curtis. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for language and some sexual content). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: December 2, 2013 11:16AM

With credits including “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” English screenwriter Richard Curtis clearly knows how to construct a high-end, heart-tugging romantic comedy.

He needs a better director than himself, though, something he seems to have realized, having announced that the typically charming yet overtly manipulative “About Time” will be his last appearance behind the camera. This is the best of Curtis’ attempts to direct his own work, after “Love Actually” and “Pirate Radio,” and it’s likely to leave his fans satisfactorily amused, teary and uplifted. Even so, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s reached inside your chest, as the great Screamin’ Jay Hawkins used to say, to “fumble with your emotions.”

“About Time” is the story of nervously likable young Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who learns from his genial, wise and loving dad (Bill Nighy at his best) on his 21st birthday that he, like all the men in their family, has the ability to travel back in time. But it’s only within the confines of his own life, meaning he can’t go back and kill Hitler, etc., and there are limits to how much can be changed before the butterfly effect kicks in, but all in all it’s not a bad birthday present. It means Tim has the ability to go back and rewrite his life, to fix those small, torturous mistakes everyone makes during the course of a day. All he has to do is go into a dark room, clench his fists, think about where he wants to go and suddenly he has the chance to say or do what he should have said or done the first time around.

Since changing the Earth’s destiny is out and his dad advises against piling up huge amounts of money (easy for him to say, in the deluxe seaside mansion his forefathers have provided), the romantically obsessed Tim, who actually has a poster of “Amelie” on his bedroom wall, decides to use his secret weapon in the pursuit of true love. And that’s quite enjoyable as long as it lasts, especially after a few practice runs get him warmed up for his soulmate Mary (Rachel McAdams, who with 2009’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” has now twice played the love interest of a time jumper). The poor girl doesn’t have a chance. He’s going to keep coming at her, adjusting flubbed lines and blown opportunities until she finally yields to Mr. Perfect.

Tim’s more endearing than the average stalker, though, and we know it’s all for the best, so the first half of “About Time” passes agreeably and, at times, hilariously. But once it’s romantic mission accomplished, Curtis moves on to increasingly serious and sentimental matters, making up new rules about time travel along the way, as Tim and Mary rack up a couple of kids, Tim’s wacky sister (Lydia Wilson) goes into crisis and the world’s greatest dad moves toward the end of his personal timeline.

Everyone involved is far too talented to mess this up too badly, but it soon becomes clear that Curtis intends to reduce us to quivering sobs mixed with heartfelt gratitude for every blessed day of life, and, like poor Mary, there’s not much we can do about it.

With the possible exception of ducking into a dark corner, clenching your fists and keeping the 10 bucks you just spent on a ticket in your pocket.

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