Eric Bana plays Henry, a man who uncontrollably and unpredictably travels back and forth in time. He ends up in a meadow where he meets a little girl, who will grow up to be the love of his life. The adult Clare (Rachel McAdams) loves him right back, despite the fact that he often spontaneously disappears for sizable quantities of time. Needless to say, it's a pretty big obstacle in a relationship, and the movie follows them as they try to maintain some sense of normalcy. They get married but Henry vanishes on their wedding day. They try to get pregnant, but Henry worries that his genetic abnormality will be passed on to a child. You get the drift.
That's pretty interesting stuff, in concept. I remember H.F. Saint's superb novel "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" (later radically altered to become a Chevy Chase comedy), which meticulously detailed its lead character's practical day-to-day struggles with invisibility. There are moments where The Time Traveler's Wife starts to go down the same path, looking at how such a thing could pose all kinds of logistical problems, especially when it comes to a love life. I didn't read Audrey Niffennegger's best-selling book, so I can't say what it did or didn't do; however, the movie certainly introduces some intriguing ideas.
The problem is that it never pulls those ideas together meaningfully. Henry and Clare, on screen at least, are woefully underdeveloped characters. We don't know much about them other than the fact that they have to deal with his spontaneous traveling. Without a strong sense of their personalities and, more importantly, their deep abiding love, the story's themes don't have much juice. You can constantly feel The Time Traveler's Wife reaching for emotional depth, yet it never gets there.
A lot of the things that are potentially most interesting - the ramifications of a child having the same ability, for instance - are glossed over. Things that would seem to be complicated are quickly handled and resolved. Another instance: Clare, in one scene, openly shows resentment at having a husband who is in and out of the picture. That lasts for about the length of that particular scene, and then it's over. Here's a great example of a place where drama could be mined, yet the picture shies away from it. I guess the intention was to make a great love story, a la Ghost, to show two people who won't let their love be tarnished by any malady. Perhaps that seemed like a safer box office bet than making a movie that acknowledged the occasionally messy quality of relationships.
Compounding the problem is the fact that it’s hard to follow the story’s timeline. Henry is young in some scenes, older in others. Because they have not done a good job with Eric Bana’s makeup, he always looks largely the same, leading to confusion about what stage of the character’s life he’s in. At least one major plot point rests on this idea, so not having clarity robs the moment of any potential power it might have. There are other parts where Henry travels through time meeting himself at various ages. Trying to keep this straight can be almost literally headache-inducing.
Bana and McAdams do what they can with the material; it’s just not enough. I think The Time Traveler’s Wife needed to worry less about trying to make the audience swoon with its clichéd nothing-can-keep-us-apart romance and treat its premise a little more authenticity. Had the film really bought into the idea that Clare and Henry love each other so much that they are willing to endure the pain of his affliction – instead of just using it as a hook to jerk tears - this might have been a love story for the ages.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Time Traveler’s Wife hits DVD and Blu-Ray on Feb. 9 in widescreen format. The picture and sound quality are outstanding.
The only DVD feature is “Love Beyond Words,” a 20-minute interview with cast and crew that dissects some of the themes of the movie and also discusses its translation from page to screen. Adapter Bruce Joel Rubin talks fascinatingly (if borderline pretentiously) about his attempts to maintain some of the spiritual elements of the novel. McAdams, meanwhile, confesses to her long-standing desire to play Clare after having read the book. While the film itself didn’t quite work for me, this feature was impressive in the information it gave. Like it or not, you can tell that everyone involved tried hard to make something special.
The Time Traveler's Wife is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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