There are only so many puns that one can make in a world where an individual’s “time”—that is, minutes of lifespan—serves as both “life” and “money,” but “In Time” somehow manages to nail them all. Cops are “timekeepers,” robbers are “minutemen,” and neighborhoods are “time-zones.” Keeping time, saving time, spending time, take your time, lifetime, killing time—it’s 110 minutes of punning and not much else.
The film boasts numerous big names, including Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Olivia Wilde, writer-director Andrew Niccol of “The Truman Show” fame, and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (“True Grit”). You know a project with such talent is in trouble when its most memorable element is the punning. Sadly, though, “In Time” seems to be an all too common case of fine ingredients mixed in the wrong combination.
The premise of the script is a promising one, as evidenced by the buzz generated by the film’s trailer. Timberlake’s Will Salas lives in a world where people stop aging at 25 and are given only one year left to live, unless they can replenish their “clock,” a set of glowing green digits on their forearms. Time, literally, is money, and if your clock runs down to zero, you “time out”—another one!—and die.
Time can be shared—or stolen—by grabbing another person’s wrist and transferring it. When Will meets an unusually fortunate but troubled man with a century on his watch, he finds himself in a predicament after the man transfers all his time to Will and times out. Will is consequently accused of murder, and this injustice, along with the death of his mother (Olivia Wilde), convinces him that his society’s structure is flawed beyond repair. He embarks on a journey to break down the system, and kidnaps the lovely and wealthy Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried) in the process, who somewhat predictably turns from Will’s prisoner to his partner—in crime and otherwise.
But this slick setup—having a constant ticking clock on your protagonist’s forearm certainly keeps the stakes high—ultimately results in a project that leaves something to be desired in terms of its characters. For a film that demonstrates tremendous creativity in constructing its universe, “In Time” seems to have exhausted its supply when it comes to crafting its inhabitants.
Timberlake does best in roles where he plays himself—a wise-cracking cool kid who keeps audiences laughing—as he recently demonstrated in “The Social Network.” This action drama just wasn’t for him. But to be fair, while the part might have been better executed by a DiCaprio-type, even alternative casting wouldn’t have solved the inherent problems of the Salas character. Will’s plot arc is simply too clichéd and unidimensional: he’s a loyal son and citizen turned ruthless Robin Hood who steals from the rich, gives to the poor, and generally rails against all things societal. Few viewers will be surprised or engaged by this predictable progression.
Seyfriend and her character suffer from similar problems. Sylvia spends most of her screen time looking doe-eyed and mysterious—that is, when she’s not indulging her rather uninspired lust. Beyond that, she’s a rebellious heiress, as one-note as an Ariel or a Jasmine lifted straight from a children’s narrative.
Overall, the story of “In Time” is either too absurdist or too overtly political to enjoy, and its characters are too flat to inspire empathy. Despite the valiant efforts of its talented cast and crew to prop it up, this bold attempt at execution of a promising premise soon comes toppling down. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, the punning presaged by its title is the most that the disappointing “In Time” has to offer.
—Staff writer Abigail F. Schoenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.