Turns out I'm a geek first and feminist second. Because I'm way more bothered by the arbitrary and inconsistent rules of time travel in Richard Curtis's mushy sci-fantasy romance than I am by the deep levels of creepy manipulation and temporal stalking that the story details. The movies do not like women very much — we know this. But can't they at least get the nerd stuff right?
Time travel is a cheap pervy trick for Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers on his 21st birthday that, merely by wishing it, he can jump back to moments in his own past and relive them or do them over again. Tim learns from Dad that it's a talent that all men in his family share. Because Dad is the awesome Bill Nighy, he rolls his eyes at Tim's declaration that he shall use this amazing gift to "get a girlfriend," because, yeah, that's kind of offensive and maybe a tad abusive.
But writer-director Curtis (Love Actually) is committed to convincing us that it's charming and totes adorbs how Tim uses his power to fool women into thinking he's smooth and considerate — easy when you have the benefit of hindsight and can avoid physical and conversational pitfalls the second (or fifth) time around. Curtis also wants us to know that it's romantic that this is how he makes poor Mary (Rachel McAdams) fall in love with him. He tricks her and manipulates her, gleaning knowledge of the things she's passionate about from previous conversations that only he remembers and haven't actually happened for her at all. (Mary never catches on to what her boyfriend and later husband is up to.) It's almost exactly what Bill Murray does to Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day, except we were supposed to see Murray as a creep for it, and he eventually learns that such manipulation doesn't work and that spontaneous connection and attraction cannot be forced. Tim here learns the precise opposite, and we're meant to be delighted for him.
Curtis's time-travel rules shift constantly based on the needs of his script, which is mostly designed to drive events toward the most mawkishly sentimental ending possible. At first it seems that once Tim travels back in time, he has to stay there and live through all those hours and days again in order to get back to where he jumped from, but later, and without any indication that this could be possible, he's jumping forward in time after he redoes whatever needs redoing. When Tim travels back in time and changes things, it's completely random how these changes ripple through his life.
Well, it's actually not random. It's based solely on how Curtis needs to move the plot. He might as well have Tim wave some fairy dust around. Without any warning, Tim can go back years and years in time and make major changes, and everything shifts back to the way it was before, which really shouldn't happen when it's already been established that tiny changes can have a big, unknown impact. That's the butterfly effect, and Dad warns Tim about it, and we see it in action — until the director needs it to not be a problem.
The secondary characters are, thankfully, an absolute blast. Nighy, of course, is worth seeking out in just about anything. But there's also Tom Hollander as a cranky, nasty playwright friend of Tim's, Lydia Wilson as Tim's spirited but troubled sister, Lindsay Duncan as Tim's down-to-earth mother, and Richard Cordery as Tim's slightly odd but very nice uncle. If I could, I would hop back to when Curtis was writing this and tell him to make the film all about them.