In Theaters: The Time Traveler's Wife
Movie audiences are strange beasts: pliable on principle, we will suspend disbelief on the briefest of pretenses. We will pay handsomely, in fact, to accept a world of homicidal robots, superhuman powers, or Woody Allen as a viable romantic option. But when it comes to time travel, our collective stickler intervenes: we want laws, we want the rules, we need to know exactly how this shit is going down. Without them we get crabby, preoccupied with, of all things, whether it's really possible and how this is all supposed to actually work.
The Time-Traveler's Wife, Robert Schwentke's film version of Audrey Niffenegger's 2004 novel (adapted by Ghost screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin), sets down some flimsy rules for the time travel conducted by its co-lead character, Henry, played by Eric Bana, and the viewer's wait-just-a-goddamn-minute-here gland is tweaked accordingly. We meet Henry as a boy in the backseat of a car driven by his mother, who is singing gaily right before she loses control of the vehicle; she is killed in the ensuing accident, while Henry escapes into his first wrinkle in time. In the next scene adult Henry runs into Clare (Rachel McAdams) at a Chicago library, and McAdams fires up her warm gaze, an unbudging mask of female understanding that plays well with the Land's End catalogue of chunky sweaters she models throughout the film. Clare tries to explain to Henry that they've met before and that she's been expecting him for years, but Henry doesn't know her from Marty McFly. They get naked anyway, in an awkward scene that sinks any hope that the romance animating this story will spackle up all of the black holes in its conceit.
Despite their lack of chemistry, Henry's ambivalence, and his inability to stick around (he says he cannot control his traveling, but at several points he clearly does), Clare dedicates her life, essentially, to waiting. The book alternates between the first person narration of both characters, and the film attempts to replicate that balance, but the difference is split, and we can't relate to either one. Clare's lines are so gooey they stick to the screen, and Henry mostly seems like a poor sod who can't catch an inter-galactic break.
Both characters are saddled with daddy issues as well, but Clare's seem most germane: She falls in love with the adult Henry as a 6-year old girl, and in the book Henry remarks that the adult Clare looked at him like he was "a personal Jesus." Indeed, he is positioned as something of a Christ-like figure, born to suffer and to love and perform miracle-like feats, but subject to a higher power that won't let him, say, go back in time to save his mother, or avert his own death. Yet the allusions are vague and the logistical inconsistencies are many; the film's limp grasp on the tenets of its own universe obscure the most valiant attempts to sort them.
More damaging is the film's mishandling of its central, potentially salvaging metaphor: Clare's faith in Henry and her enduring dedication to him speaks to something tragic in father-challenged women everywhere, yet the film suggests it is noble to cling to whatever scrap of love of comfort one can eke out of a man, and it's not really his fault if he can't stay -- or if alcohol, television, or some other mascara-wearing distraction makes him "travel." Absent fathers often become god-like figures to little girls, yes, and those girls regularly grow into women with a tendency to pick the least available men. I'm not convinced that's a great moral underpinning for a love story about destiny, time travel and two people defeating the odds. That's just sad because it's true.