- Rated PG-13
- Buy the DVD
All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Bob Westal
come from the near future with an important message: it’s not in any way essential that you see “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” But if someone you like wants to see it, it won’t kill you to watch it and you might even like it a little.
Based on the very successful 2003 bestseller by Audrey Niffenegger, this science-fantasy tearjerker is the story of Henry (Eric Bana), a research librarian cursed with a really, really, really rare genetic condition which makes him randomly travel through time, mostly at important points in his own life or the lives of those closest to him. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that only his body makes the chronological jump, so wherever he goes, he goes naked. The even worse news is that he lives in Chicago, so if the cold doesn’t kill him, the people he is forced to steal clothing from might. The worst news of all is that, for whatever reason (probably just to keep the story from turning into “The Terminator Finds Love”), he’s unable to prevent such personal tragedies as the accidental death of his mother (the excellent Michelle Nolden). Also, while he occasionally encounters slightly older versions of himself, he’s never confronted by a naked and elderly Henry, which would be as reassuring as it would be weird.
On the plus side, he accidentally creates a very strange dating opportunity for himself when he starts popping up in the garden of Clare (Brooklynn Proulx), a young girl from a well-off family who naturally falls in love with the handsome occasional visitor who keeps hiding in the shrubbery. About ten minutes into the film, the grown-up Clare (Rachel McAdams) finds him and, even though he doesn’t remember her yet (the visits start later in his life), she all but forces him into bed and a marriage soon follows. Relationships are hard, however, especially when one partner frequently disappears only to reappears minutes, days, or weeks later and often in need of some first aid. And, then there’s the very painful question of how to have children with a man whose genetic affliction means that his progeny are likely to time travel out of the womb.
There are any number of genre antecedents for “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” but the closest analogy is probably 1990’s “Ghost,” also written by Bruce Joel Rubin (“Jacob’s Ladder,” “Deep Impact”). Like the earlier film, this is an impossibly slick production that features two ridiculously good and good-looking characters beset by a slightly hostile universe. For all its many flaws, however, “Ghost” had more fun dealing with the genre and comedic aspects of its absurd situation while still emphasizing the romance.
Indeed, the biggest problem here is that Rubin and director Robert Schwentke front-load their movie with a traumatic, bathos filled opening and a somewhat treacly re-meet-not-so-cute. It’s awfully serious and kind of begs the idea that this same story might well have worked better as light comedy than as dewy-eyed drama. Fortunately, just as “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is really in danger of losing all viewers who require a little bit of seduction before their tear-ducts can be milked, it finally starts to briefly explore the more comic aspects of the situation. He isn’t in the film nearly enough, but it helps a lot that Ron Livingston (“Office Space,” “Band of Brothers”) fulfills his gig as comedy-relief-buddy with real skill. Later on, Steven Tobolowsky (“Memento,” “Deadwood”) adds more much needed humor as an inevitably skeptical geneticist who aids the two leads in their efforts at childbirth.
Strong touches like that help to compensate for a variety of niggling problems including excessive use of Michael Dynna’s somewhat over-lush score and some questionable directorial/story decisions, including the fact that Henry and Clare’s first wedding dance is to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Even forgetting that the tune is strongly associated with the suicide of singer Ian Curtis, it’s the kind of choice even a couple of hardcore Goths might think twice about. And there is the usual annoying reliance on sloppy movie clichés where even young artists live in impossibly huge and lavish apartments and no one ever seems to work or concern themselves with money.
And so it goes. Premises are set up and then dropped. Characters appear and disappear. Later, when Henry himself disappears into one of his time-funks for two weeks over the holidays, no mention is made of any possible repercussions on his librarian gig, though we don’t see him at work again for the balance of the film and Henry makes a bundle by cheating on the lottery in the next scene – a moment that’s mildly refreshing because it allows our two attractive lead characters to be less than saintly for just a moment.
Still, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” eventually redeems itself by offering us just enough emotional reality and humor to make its final sequences pay off far more effectively than I would have expected. Perhaps most credit is due here to the lead performances – the one area in which this film is vastly superior to “Ghost.” (Sorry, but I can’t work up much nice to say about the acting of Patrick Swayze circa 1990 or Demi Moore, ever.) While Rachel McAdams has been a bit better in spunkier roles in “Wedding Crashers” and “Red Eye,” she is effective enough here, and wise enough to stay out of the way of Eric Bana, outstanding in a part that requires him to keep most of his feelings concealed. Also, some attention must be paid to a pair of cuter-than-the-law-allows youngsters, Hailey and Tatum McCann, who contribute mightily to the film’s final act and are probably far more crucial than either of them will realize at this age in eliciting tears from sentimentally inclined grown-ups.
Yes, even as I was noting all kind of problems, I cried a little at “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Of course, I regularly get misty watching westerns, and I’m descended from people who’ve been known to weep buckets over episodes of “The Love Boat,” but it’s still more than I expected.