There are so many alternate things you could call The Time Traveler’s Wife: the third Eric Bana movie of the summer, Rachel McAdam’s mature Notebook, director Robert Schwentke’s first film that doesn’t rely heavily on being a thriller, writer Bruce Joel Rubin’s return to fantastical romance after winning an Oscar for Ghost, the movie that has the misfortune of opening against District 9 or just the adaptation of the best-selling book by first-time novelist Audrey Niffenegger.
The question is, which one is the most accurate to the experience of the film? And it might be none of them.
The Time Traveler’s Wife tells the story of Henry (Bana) who was born with a genetic disorder that has him dissolving through time at seemingly random intervals he cannot control. I say “seemingly random” because Henry can’t control when he leaves, but does return to times and places of significance. Along the way, he meets Claire (McAdams), who claims to have known him from her childhood. This strikes Henry as odd, because he doesn’t remember Claire at all. The two fall in love and time-traveling drama ensues.
The Time Traveler’s Wife opened last Friday in the US, one week after another movie aimed at the female audience; Julie & Julia. Does this adaptation have what it takes to lure audiences into its saccharine sweet clutches?
As a guy, romances don’t always work for me. Since Ghost was also written by Bruce Joel Rubin and featured a love story set with supernatural elements, I initially approached it in a similar fashion: there’s gonna be some kissin’ and cryin’, but also some other stuff that I should be able to latch on to. And time travel is another pet-subject of mine, so I was hoping that the film would do something cool with it.
It was my focus on trying to find something to latch onto that kept me engaged with The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s nothing wrong with the movie, but there isn’t a great deal for the non-romantics among us to latch on to. For instance, the film sets up very early on that you cannot change the past, then abandons changing the future at the same time without explicitly mentioning it. Hence, we have fate. This movie is about two people fated to be with each other, it’s just what is a linear relationship for one is a non-linear relationship for the other.
Claire meets Henry for the first time when she is around 10 years old and he is somewhere around 30. Henry can’t travel with his clothes so a naked man steps out of the bushes, tells her that they are going to be friends and that he’s a time traveler. Little Claire is a bit of a spark plug, neglected by her wealthy parents and soon bonds with this naked guy who – seemingly at random – shows up in the meadow near her house. Henry explains that he’s drawn to certain places and moments in time frequently, as if there was some sort of metaphysical gravity pulling him there. The meadow is significant for several reasons, so he returns there more than anywhere else. Claire, meanwhile, keeps a journal and when Claire grows older and finds Henry working at a library (Henry is unaware of who she is), he sneaks a peek at her journal so he can have vague ideas about when he’ll get to see younger Claire.
Things become more complicated after Claire has a series of miscarriages and Henry gets a vasectomy only to realize that for a time traveler, this procedure is useless.
The film manages to add a new layer to the romance or the time traveling whenever I started to get bored: kids in time, a single event that propels Henry forward in time (which rarely happens), questions about why no one has seen an old version of Henry: does he get cured or something more sinister?
Time Traveler’s Wife is a romance first and a movie about time travel second, and that’s about where it lost me. The questions about how much choice either party had when falling in love were ultimately less interesting than questions about the nature of time, and that’s not the way this movie needed to go to make me want to see it again or to recommend it to anyone.
At my screening, I sat next to a woman who had read the book and she was excited that it kept the parts she liked and stayed mostly faithful to the story. If you happen to be one of the many that enjoyed the novel, I’m guessing this won’t be disappointing to you.
For the rest of us, the movie doesn’t know how to balance its momentum well enough to satisfy. For men, especially, the film is like a magician; tricking you into engaging only to reveal it was slight-of-hand masked by glitz and showmanship. It suffers from novel-adaptation syndrome where certain relationships and characters that feel like they should be important go through sudden changes in their core value, though we never see what causes it. Much ado is made about Henry and Gomez (Ron Livingston) being friends, but when Henry finally has to say goodbye, the moment is hollow.
Bana and McAdams have some pretty good chemistry all things considered, but they don’t get many huge romantic moments where both of them know the reality of the situation, which added a level of frustration for me that I usually associate with horror films and television. Because Henry experiences the relationship differently, he sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him. However, because this is fate anyway, almost all the bumpy moments in the relationship have their drama stripped from them. Like any time travel movie, secrets are kept, but in this one they are kept for unapparent reasons, most likely to keep the plot taught enough for the audience to engage with it.
Maybe I would deal with time traveling a different way, like always being completely honest with my spouse about what I saw and knew. But here’s the thing: I shouldn’t be thinking about that sort of stuff while I’m watching a romance, and here I was, which isn’t praise for the film.
Something about The Time Traveler’s Wife is flat, and I think it’s the fatalist aspect, at least for me. As soon as the plot becomes about romance, I resigned myself to waiting for the next sequence that deepened the mystery or the next time-travel effect, and that’s not what should happen in a romance.
There is one sequence where the film worked exactly like it was supposed to: It’s Claire and Henry’s wedding day and right before Henry is supposed to take his place at the alter, he gets sucked through time. A few minutes later, an older, salt-n-pepper haired Henry shows up to replace the young one. McAdams marries an older version of her husband, only for the younger one to return for the first dance of the married couple. Broken Social Scene plays the band in the film and the happy husband-and-wife dance in each other’s arms. We cut to the honeymoon sweet where both Claire and Henry decide to jump on the bed, and right as the happiness is about to turn sexual, Henry disappears, leaving even his ring behind.
The balance between fated love and the sadness of being left behind is encapsulated in this sequence with the right balance of emotion, humor and the supernatural, but – sadly – the film doesn’t reach that balance again.