REVIEW: Timberlake and Seyfried Make Glamorous Time Bandits in Sleek, Thoughtful In Time
Not even the most enormous movie marketing budget in the world could buy the perfect timing of Andrew Niccol's In Time, an allegory about the disparity between the rich and the poor in this country that's so confident it barely even bothers to masquerade as a thriller even though, supposedly, that's the way to sell tickets. So what if the characters occasionally spout Marxist pamphleteering dialogue like "The truth is, there's more than enough"? In Time has so much style and energy that it comes across as an act of boldness rather than just a liberal-minded tract, though of course, it's that too. If there were ever a movie made for the 99 percent, this is it.
In Time, which Niccol also wrote, is set in a future where human beings are genetically programmed to stop aging at age 25. The catch is, they live only one more year, unless they happen to be wealthy enough to add more time to their personal clocks. "Time is the currency," Justin Timberlake's character explains in voiceover in the picture's opening minutes. "The rich can live forever." We're in a place where time really is money, and the rich hog it not just as a measure of self-preservation but out of pure greed. It's not just that they don't care about the lives of the poor; they intend to choke the life out of them. Disposing of them is much easier than helping them would be.
And so the over-25s in this grim new world -- those who weren't lucky enough to be born into lives of luxury and privilege, which is mostly everybody -- scramble to add minutes and hours to their lives, which are recorded on ever-ticking meters that glow on the inside of their forearms like radioactive tattoos. They live in a tumble-down ghetto called Dayton, while the rich carelessly fritter away hours, days and years on the sunnier side of the tracks in a gleaming, swanky community known as New Greenwich. To get by, the citizens of Dayton take out loans, either from big banks or shady two-bit operations, or they toil away in a grim, Metropolis-style factory. Still, they spend those hard-earned minutes much faster than they can stockpile them; the system is designed to keep them impoverished, if not kill them outright. A worker in line at a cafeteria protests that the price of a cup of coffee now costs four minutes of his life, when yesterday it was only three. A bus driver refuses to pick up a woman who doesn't have enough money for the fare, even when she pleads with him: The walk will take two hours, and she's got only 90 minutes left.
That woman -- she's played by Olivia Wilde -- is the mother of Timberlake's Will Salas, and early on, the movie sends out a gentle comic jolt when he refers to her as "mom." Everyone in the movie's purview is young and relatively beautiful, but in a world where every minute past age 25 is like the tick of a time bomb, that's less a gift than a curse. It can also be simply exhausting: One night Will rescues a rich, handsome stranger from a bar brawl that could have gotten the guy killed. (It's possible to pass some of your time to others, via a kind of wrist-to-wrist transfer; that also means evildoers can wrestle you down and steal your life away.) It turns out the stranger -- he's played by Matt Bomer, of White Collar -- is 105, and he's had enough. "Your mind can be spent even if your body's not," he tells Will wearily. After an author's message conversation about using time wisely and for good not evil, the stranger bequeaths his life to Will, a gift that attracts the unwelcome attention of a "timekeeper," or cop, played (far too stiffly) by Cillian Murphy, who suspects Will of murder.
Meanwhile, Will knows what he wants to do with all those newfound days, hours and minutes, and he even finds a slumming rich-girl sidekick, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried), to share his adventures. From there, Niccol fashions In Time into a kind of sleek folk ballad, part Robin Hood, part Bonnie and Clyde. The action, including a car chase where one of the vehicles zooms mostly in reverse, is adequately thrilling but not particularly assaultive or noisy. And if the dialogue occasionally hits a pretentious bump or two, for the most part it purrs along on subtle cleverness. At one point a tall, cool drink of a waitress in tony New Greenwich assesses Will -- who's dressed in a neat, trim jacket but who still can't fully disguise his class -- and notes that she can tell he's not a local. "You do everything a little too fast," she says. Will looks up at her through a winsome fringe of eyelashes and replies, "Not everything."
Timberlake is shaping up to be a marvelous actor, and his evolution didn't begin with his slick, alluring turn as Sean Parker in The Social Network. He was terrific in Craig Brewer's 2006 Black Snake Moan, and his comic timing, in pictures like last summer's Bad Teacher, is sly and acute. He's great fun to watch here, particularly paired with Seyfried: In one scene the two of them, now on the lam, watch news footage of themselves on television, and Seyfried's Sylvia blinks those outsize peepers and says, "We look cute together." Together the two have a casual, playful frisson that both offsets and enhances the movie's deeper meaning. These two are an ever-glamorous presence: When they first meet, he's decked out in a smooth-fitting tux; she wears a midnight-colored dress with a short, full skirt -- she's like a black bluebell perched on bodacious stems. The movie doesn't punish its characters for being young and beautiful. Instead it revels in the sight of them, and that's just one of the ways Niccol makes sure that his movie, despite its blunt message, never succumbs to preachiness.
Because In Time is a quietly angry picture, an extended metaphor for the way corporations continue to suck the life from the poor and the not-quite-middle-class in this country -- and we're not talking about the sexy kind of bloodsucking. The key is that Niccol and his cinematographer Roger Deakins aren't just trying to goad us into buying their message. They always give us something to look at too. So few contemporary entertainments aspire to any sort of visual poetry, but In Time offers numerous moments of grace and grandeur: On the evening of their meeting, Will and Sylvia ditch a dull, rich-bitch casino crowd for a skinny-dipping session in a vast heated pool. Their arms intertwine, and their neon time-clock tattoos glow in the dark like luminous undersea creatures. It's the kind of touch that suggests a filmmaker is thinking with his eyes as well as with his mind. There's no reason ideas, like people, can't walk in beauty.
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