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Back From the Future

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009)


Richard Curtis has a lot to answer for. This does not apply to “Blackadder,” the most amusingly misanthropic show ever. Nor does it apply to his charity work with Comic Relief and the astounding amounts of money it has raised. But it does apply to “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and everything that followed it. Not only the subsequent films he has written, but also those he inspired, “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” included.

What Mr. Curtis did with “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was create a template which has been rigorously followed by British film comedy ever since. A tight-knit group of friends infiltrated by an American woman? Acknowledgment of diversity through regional accents only and an embarrassing lack of non-white faces? A sexually insecure hero reduced to verbal diarrhea in the presence of women? Nonstop jokey banter regardless of its appropriateness? Alcohol as the main driver of the plot? B-I-N-G-O. Well, at least it’s a successful formula.

Sci-fi-obsessed geek Ray (Chris O’Dowd) gets the sack from his job at the theme park where Pete (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Toby (Marc Wootton) also work, so they go to the pub for commiseration drinks. After an in-depth discussion about the screenplay Toby is perennially working on, Ray is sent to the bar for another round and returns full of excitement about Cassie (Anna Faris). She knows so much about Ray and his obsession with time travel, it is obvious she is a role-playing prostitute the others hired for a joke. Pete ridicules the whole idea, before nipping to the loos for a slash. On his return to the bar, he sees the whole pub lying dead on the floor – including himself, with a beard.

Screenwriter Jamie Mathieson deserves a lot of credit for a tightly structured set-up which manages to contain most of the action within the pub setting. He also should be complimented on the forthright way in which the characters handle the complicated paradoxes of time travel. “There’s always rules about these things,” frets Toby. “Ah,” says Ray. “Yes. Don’t touch yourself.” Pete stares at him: “If I’m honest, Ray, I’ve other things on my mind right now.” The trouble is the banter is a stairway to nowhere; the punchlines wither in the actors’ mouths, raising weak smiles but no belly laughs. Fortunately, the plot compensates by clopping along inoffensively, and Ms. Faris (best known for “The House Bunny,” “Lost in Translation” and “Brokeback Mountain”) is a comedienne with expert timing. But there’s also a continuity error early on with a pair of sunglasses, which I noted carefully thinking it would be important later – a careless mistake in a film with this theme.

One would be hard-pressed to think of a recent successful British comedy on film driven by someone who hasn’t first cut his or her teeth on television: Mr. Curtis, Ricky Gervais, the chaps from Monty Python and Simon Pegg, whose “Shaun of the Dead” also involved men seeking refuge from a world gone mad in a pub. All three British leads have extensive experience on British television: Mr. O’Dowd will attract the fanboys from “The IT Crowd,” Mr. Kelly was the flirtatious Shakespeare in “Doctor Who,” and Mr. Wootton has worked in the past with Mr. Carrivick, who has directed multiple episodes of various sitcoms.

This sitcom background is obvious in the film’s setup, style and situational limitations. There are brief attempts to widen the setting, but clumsy C.G.I. and a villain which should have been kept hidden spoil these moments. The economy of the setting makes the film very repetitive; production designer Kave Quinn can find only so many ways to freshen the exploration of a single pub, a singalong to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in the loo notwithstanding. By casting Ms. Faris, the film clearly wants to be taken seriously as an international player. “Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” was a perfectly enjoyable way to pass the time, but it’s not the quantum leap forward for British cinema that its makers hope it to be.


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