The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)
You think your romantic foibles are complicated? Based on Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, we follow the life of Henry (Eric Bana), a librarian stricken with the unique genetic disorder of uncontrollable time travel. He first discovered this condition when he was six years old and disappeared out of his mother’s car, only to rematerialize and watch her die from afar. An older version of Henry happened to also be on hand and fill in his younger self on the details. Henry will randomly move backwards and forwards through time, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. One of the side effects of spontaneous time travel is, naturally, nudity, as Henry travels in the buff a la the Terminator. So usually the first thing he must do when he winds up some place new is find some clothes. Henry seems destined to be a sad and lonely man, but then one day Clare (Rachel McAdams) enters his life, confessing that she’s known Henry for years and been waiting for this exact moment to arrive. She asserts herself and asks Henry for a dinner date that’s been in the works for some time. They fall in love, or fall further in love in Clare’s case, and try to make a relationship work despite Henry’s hiccups through time.
There’s a tenderness to the movie, though I found it tricky to fully engage in the characters. Much of the movie concerns the plot complications that befall such a strained and unique relationship. The flick gives new meaning to cold feet when Henry literally vanishes during his wedding, only to reappear as a mid-40s version of himself (hey makeup department, you couldn’t do more to effectively age Bana than add a dash of grey?). There is a great mind-bending section where Clare cheats (?) on Henry with… a younger version of himself. I was interested in the subdued proceedings and I felt underpinnings of empathy for Henry and Clare, but then my mind wandered into something a little darker and pessimistic. Now, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a polished traditional romance despite the sci-fi trappings but I started thinking about if what I was witnessing was actual romance? Henry first visits Clare as a child, telling her he will be her eventual husband. She falls in love with him in that moment and rejects all other suitors, knowing with absolute certainty that she will marry Henry. She just has to find him. And when adult Clare does meet Henry the librarian, he has never seen her before up to that point (it’s not as confusing as it may sound). She’s been waiting years to see his face again and she tells him that they are destined to get married. You see what’s at play here? The romantic plot is a loop where each character supplies the other’s conviction. Henry locked Clare into a life of looking for him and said they would marry, but then the adult Clare is the one who convinces Henry that they will indeed marry, and he tells young Clare this who will then convince Henry, etc. Is there any free will at play here, or is each partner in this relationship being manipulated by the certitude of the other? It’s sort of a metaphysical chicken/egg scenario.
The best portion of the movie comes across during the second half when the movie focuses more on the emotional consequences of Henry’s condition. Early on Henry’s uncontrollable time traveling is played for laughs and some forced and somewhat trivial conflict (oh no, he missed another dinner!). Henry has a chilly relationship with his father (Arliss Howard) until, well, I’m not quite sure, but things improve. In the second half of The Time Traveler’s Wife, the drama gets more serious and intriguing when Clare and Henry attempt to conceive. Henry’s genetic disorder gets passed down to the baby fetuses, which means little babies are vanishing out of the womb and perishing before being zapped back inside. That’s a rather disturbing image and yet it is a thoughtful and plausible problem given the premise. As a result, Clare suffers through several traumatizing miscarriages. But they keep at it because Henry has seen his future lineage, also a time-traveler, and he knows that one of these pregnancies will go full term and become their eventual daughter, Alba (Tatum McCann). It was this storyline that stopped my mind from occasionally wandering and hooked my interest. Perhaps it’s cheap sentiment, but it’s hard not to feel for this loving couple when they endure pregnancies fraught with danger. The movie misses out on a dynamite dramatic opportunity with Alba. If I were adapting this to the screen, I would make sure to include Alba as a grown 30-something woman visiting her father on his deathbed, tearfully informing her dear dad on all the eventful moments that he won’t be around to experience. Picture an adult Alba talking about her own children to her dying father. There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. Hollywood, if you’d like to tack on an extra emotional ending to this movie, there’s still time. Call me.
It is here that I must address some key scenes that may pique curiosity. During Henry’s travels, he frequently visits the young child version of Clare. The first time Clare meets her future husband she is a little girl sitting in a meadow on the boundary of her family’s palatial estate. Henry, as he does every time he becomes unstuck through time, arrives in the nearby woods without a stitch on. Director Robert Swentke (Flightplan) and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (an Oscar-winner for Ghost) work diligently to make sure the movie walks a very fine tone, and I confess that the scenes between loving child and naked time-traveling man escape creepy pedophilic overtones. Take that blurb for what you will in a romance: “Hey, no pedophilic overtones!”
There are some other complications when it comes to this matter of unexpected time traveling. Firstly, the rules seem to be flexibly applied. At one point Henry is talking about how he cannot prevent his mother’s deadly car accident. The movie professed a destiny-entrenched approach to time travel, meaning every action you think you’re engaging out of free will was predetermined (the TV show Lost also subscribes to this theory). It cuts out time paradoxes. But then in another moment Henry uses his knowledge of the future to win the lottery. So which is it? Are the filmmakers trying to convince me that it was destiny for Henry and Clare to win the lottery, because I’m not buying it. Having a time-traveler for a boyfriend takes out some of the natural drama o relationships when one party can peak ahead. Relationships have danger and excitement and uncertainty to them, but when Henry can just matter-of-factly say, “We’re gonna be fine. We’re still together and in love fifteen years later, I saw it,” well it may make for good romance for some, but it makes for rather inert drama. How can you hope to win arguments? Naturally, the hefty book has been streamlined as much as possible for a mainstream moviegoing audience, which means that Henry’s scope of time traveling is scaled back. At one point he quantum leaps beyond his own lifetime, and because this has never happened before and is really only done to introduce a ticking death clock. I suppose there will always be inconsistencies when it comes to breaking the space-time continuum.
McAdams (The Notebook) is a great choice for the romantic center of the movie. She’s glassy-eyed and smiles so hard in her early sequences you think her dimples are going to explode off her cheery face. She is such a winning presence and her warm-hearted glow powers the character and the movie. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have very good chemistry with her onscreen mate. Henry is a victim of an existential cruel joke. Bana (Munich) is light-footed and makes Henry more than a space-time martyr. He’s somewhat amorphous as a character, a collection of niceties and genial, puppy-dog affection, which means that Henry is routinely upstaged by his genetic condition. However, when Henry faces the specter of his impending death is when the character gets a lot more attention and Bana is able to work his considerable talents. He gets ample opportunities to showcase his time-traveling buttocks. I don’t think too many women out there would be that put off if a naked Eric Bana magically materialized in their bedroom.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is mildly reminiscent of The Lake House, and not just because of the time travel romantic complications. Deep down, these are traditional Hollywood romances with a fresh sci-fi coat of paint. The movie is best if you set the logic portion of your brain off so that inconsistencies and potential contrivances don’t distract from an intriguing story that presents some nice developments. There’s a tender love story here, though the characters don’t leave as much of an impression as they could have with such a plot-heavy romance. It finishes strongly and the mood throughout has a somber bittersweet quality, hammering home the “enjoy the time you have” message. McAdams is darling, Bana gets in the buff, their chemistry isn’t great, and the filmmakers refrain from the material getting overly sentimental or solipsistic. In a summer of relative disappointments, a tricky, clever approach at traditional romance is welcome amidst the explosions and wacky studio comedies.
Nate’s Grade: B