The Time Traveler's Wife
- Directed by Robert Schwentke
- Written by Bruce Joel Rubin
- Starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams
- Classification: PG
In sentimental fiction, if not in sorry reality, romance's heart always pounds to the same reassuring three beats, and the script is the trusty metronome that keeps time. Its rhythm never varies: (1) introduce the problem; (2) complicate the problem; (3) resolve the problem. Well, The Time Traveler's Wife poses a doozy of a romantic problem, but here's the weird thing: Beyond that, there are few complications. Seldom has the course of true love run more smoothly, a happy fact that's good for the lovers in the film, but bad for us. We need a romance with ruts deep enough to collect our puddled tears and put those tissues to weepy use. So, ladies and any interested gents, be advised: Don't bother to stuff your purses or clutter your pockets - this is definitely a Kleenex-free zone.
The source material for the film is that bestseller by Audrey Niffenegger, a novel that boasts more dates than Paris Hilton's social calendar. Of course, when a girl tumbles for a time-travelling guy, for a bedmate with a habit of appearing today and then disappearing into the vast reaches of tomorrow-land, chronology is a bit of an issue. That's why the book takes great pains to keep his whereabouts straight, constantly issuing italicized memos: September 1977 or June 2000 or July 2053 .
The movie does none of this, choosing instead to clarify the story by streamlining the journey - shortening the travelled distances, discarding key characters, and focusing squarely on the central romance. Yet there's the dilemma. The streamlining does its job too well: Gone is any potential confusion, but gone too are the ruts, the animating complications.
The gadfly in question is a hunk named Henry (Eric Bana), a fellow with a "rare genetic anomaly" that hurls him sporadically and randomly through the space-time continuum. (Gee, is that "rare" really necessary?) One moment, he's fully clothed in the here and now; the next, poof , he's stark naked in the there and then wearing nothing but the overnight stubble of any jet-lagged journeyer. Bana-philes will doubtless enjoy the discreet nudity, while the rest of us, repeatedly watching his frantic search for replacement duds, are left to grapple with the forced comedy. Okay, his airline may be unique, but that lost-luggage joke gets stale fast.
Still, spare a little sympathy for Bana, and some respect, too. Only an actor with real gravity could prevent lines such as "I'm a time traveller, I came from the future, and I didn't get to bring my clothes" from spiralling off into farcical orbit. Mainly, what he's performing here is an impressive feat of damage control.
Rachel McAdams's role as the faithful wife, however, is a thankless role at best, and pretty near impossible with these sci-fi encumbrances. Clare first meets her beloved in a sunny meadow when she's a fearless girl of 6 - a prepubescent Eve whose Adam pops up in the garden's green thickets. As the adult Clare and the non-commuter in this long-distance relationship, her sole mission is to carry the torch through Henry's many vanishing acts - a task McAdams executes with a plastered-on smile as constant as her love.
Now, metaphorically, all this might have been an elaborate yet intriguing take on the commitment-phobic male, forever offering his heart only to withdraw it, disappearing behind a cold wall of reticence. But neither the book nor the film is interested in metaphor. Rather, director Robert Schwentke steers a determinedly literal-minded course, and amour's only impediment is Henry's quirky DNA. Occasionally, his twitchy hold on the present is played for tepid laughs, giving new meaning to wedding-day jitters (will the groom take a powder at the altar?) and fresh certainty to winning the lottery (time-travelling does whisk the gamble out of gambling).
Mainly, though, the impediment is mined for emotion, with few recovered nuggests. That's hardly surprising, for the simple reason that Henry's magical ailment contains the seeds of its own magical cure: Whenever a complication arises such as the wife's wish to give birth, or the husband's appointment with death, the plot can simply time-travel to the solution. So, like that rigged lottery ticket, romance is robbed of its gamble, stripped of its suspense, shorn of its mystery, and deprived of an ending that feels earned. It's little wonder that our hankies stay dry. The Time Traveler's Wife slips the romance cards into a stacked deck - read 'em if you will, but no need to weep.