“Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel” (2009)
by A.J. Hakari
If, at this instant, the “man-child misadventures” genre was razed to the ground and the earth upon which it stood thoroughly salted, it wouldn’t be soon enough. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the conceit of immature goofballs coming to terms with responsibility, yet the abundance of lazily-written, poorly-concealed wish fulfillment fantasies tends to drown out those stories with actual concern for exploring this tension. 2009’s Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is but one in a swarm of comedies that reward their lead characters for having no arcs to speak of, masking the absence of personal growth with constant claims of, like, just trying to be funny, man. In its defense, this UK-born farce does strive to be something in the Bill & Ted mold, a light-hearted romp mining its humor from what comes to pass when a few pop culture-obsessed slackers are thrust into a situation way over their heads. But in making these guys alleged experts in the kind of pickle they’re in and proceeding to do jack-all about it over the course of the narrative, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel sets itself up for disappointment that springs up more consistently than good jokes or witty observations.
There are those among us who have occasional difficulty grasping with the duties of adulthood; Ray (Chris O’Dowd), on the other hand, can’t even handle working at a low-rent theme park. Along with his buds Pete (Dean Lennox Kelly) and Toby (Mark Wootton), he’s fine with griping about what might’ve been and waxing nerdy down at the pub. But what starts as an evening over a couple pints soon turns into an adventure beyond anything these gents could have ever imagined. Following the appearance of a woman (Anna Faris) who says she’s from the future, the trio finds that the bar bathroom has become the host of a “time leak.” Every time they leave it, they’re greeted with a different point during the night — and, sometimes, an apocalyptic vision of things to come. Initially freaked at their predicament, Ray and company quickly realize that they haven’t the luxury of sticking their heads in the sand until things get better. Pursued by both murderous monsters and evil “editors” that want them wiped from the history books, the gang discovers that the fate of existence itself is in their hands and that it’ll take all the geeky knowledge at their disposal to save it.
With its budget and scope equally restrained, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel has to rely on its laughs and its smarts to woo viewer interest. As most of the action takes place in or around the pub, director Gareth Carrivick and writer Jamie Mathieson (who penned a handful of “Doctor Who” episodes) tailor the story’s time-hopping elements to suit it. The flick has fun constructing scenarios in which versions of our protagonists from different periods must dodge one another in enclosed spaces, many of which come across as novel and elicit a well-earned smile. But such smirks gradually peter away, as the realization that these gags are all the film really has to its name and that it wholesale ignores a potential comedic gold mine sets in. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel does next to nothing with the notion of its main characters being nerds who’ve spent countless drunken nights speculating how they’d handle the sort of far-fetched mess they end up stumbling into for real. Rarely are Ray, Toby, and Pete permitted to put their collective years spent absorbing sci-fi culture to good use, with this aspect reserved chiefly for pushing the target audience’s nostalgia buttons with some key references while our heroes blunder from scrape to scrape. One can make the excuse that the guys being useless in the face of real peril is part of the joke, but it’s a stretch, especially considering what scant variety the script wrings from its time angle, forgoing opportunity after opportunity to show off how clever it supposedly is.
Still, the right cast has been known to elevate the crummiest material, and to its credit, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel benefits from a wholly likable bunch. Having perfected his layabout act on TV’s “The IT Crowd,” O’Dowd carries a similar persona and sense of timing in the part of Ray, chalking up his fair share of chuckles (albeit without as much charisma). As for his socially-awkward chums, Kelly proves as ideal of a choice for the group’s designated cynic as Wootton is for its naïve dreamer, each actor’s natural charm doing what they can to help us weather the screenplay’s sorriest sections. For as all smiles as Faris remains through the ordeal, though, she’s almost totally wasted here, her roles in the plot relegated to those of exposition dump and Ray’s flimsily-established love interest. All in all, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel doesn’t utterly strip its players of their humanity, yet because we so often see them either whining up a storm or citing better movies in their dialogue, those moments that try to develop them end up feeling phony and trite. Cobbling together a silly escapade for the yuks is fine and everything, but narratives have to have some consequence to them, and be it in serving up characters who learn from their trials or creatively inserting them in and out of danger, this film falters far more than it needed to.
Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is Diet Edgar Wright, substituting the savvy, soul, and genuine introspection his flicks possess in spades with rote storytelling and cheap nostalgia baiting. Though the production isn’t without merit, I hesitate to give it too much credit for the odd amusing one-liner or well-executed conceptual set piece, lest it come off in the same way the plot congratulates its protagonists merely for not completely sucking in the end. Clocking in at around eighty minutes, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel isn’t insufferable, but with its lazy attitude, chances of it endearing to us at any length are mighty slim.
(This review is part of a crossover with Sam Wampfler of the Cinema Bros podcast. Click here for Sam’s thoughts on the film I chose for him, Gray’s Anatomy.)