'Time Traveler's Wife' Subverts Potential
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Looking for some romantic treacle to take the edge off summer's testosterone-loaded action flicks? That'd be "The Time Traveler's Wife," a lame love story that tries to manufacture emotional magic by means of a venerable sci-fi hook. The film's hunky hero, Henry (Eric Bana), a rather stolid fellow, falls way short of a passionate Heathcliff type, but he does have one trick up his sleeve: He's given to spontaneously disappearing without warning into other time zones.
Tripping naked around in the past, Henry encounters a pretty little girl in a summery meadow, and the stage is set for a love that spans decades. Talk about meeting cute. When Clare (Rachel McAdams), that little girl all grown up, runs into her beau in "current" time, the ripe, young woman is eager for the embrace she's been anticipating for years. Trouble is, the object of her affection hasn't a clue who this starry-eyed girl is, since he hasn't yet time-traveled to that sunny meadow.
Beginning to grasp the intrinsic loopiness of this occasionally charming narrative gimmick? Adapted from Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 best-seller, the movie was scripted by Bruce Joel Rubin, who took home a 1990 Academy Award for "Ghost," another tear-jerking love story featuring a physically absent hubby. Don't expect "Wuthering Heights" profundity or passion in "Time"; the film's basically about a couple of attractive yuppies whose lives of happy affluence are disrupted by a genetic disorder that sends Henry packing on his wedding night, at Christmas, when his wife miscarries, even the night of his own demise.
Underneath the fantasy folderol, "The Time Traveler's Wife" falls flat as romance because Henry and Clare are barely more than character cutouts, too thin in personality and emotion to make us care deeply about their weird predicament. They're just pretty snapshots in a haphazard continuum. Absent sexual or spiritual chemistry, no matter how often McAdams turns her rapt face up to her elusive mate, no matter how earnestly Bana furrows his brow over his marriage interruptus, their expressions don't add up to full-bodied feelings. These star-crossed lovers have no everyday lives, only a string of peak moments that fail to season their souls or psyches.
The movie moves fast, as though to distract you from these shortcomings and the nearly total absence of logic. Every scene is fraught, but without fruition. One moment Clare couldn't be happier to get hitched, despite Henry's incurable disappearing act. Three or four vignettes later, wifey's at the end of her tether, beating up on her long-suffering spouse: "Who would choose this life?" Granted, Henry's just told her he's had a vasectomy, to forestall any more miscarriages, the result of his offspring involuntarily time-traveling while still in the womb. (This doesn't bear thinking about.) Clare's question is legitimate, one we've been wondering about from the get-go. But things break fast among time travelers. Several movie-moments later, Clare's deliberately getting busy with (and knocked up by) an earlier version of Henry, which would seem to indicate the making of a life-choice, no?
With similar abruptness, Henry buttonholes a fellow (Ron Livingston), glimpsed now and again on the fringes of the central drama, to thank him for his wonderful, lifelong friendship. When did they bond? Did the scenes showing their deep connection get cut? Though the dramatic introduction of a sympathetic genetic scientist promises great things (especially since he's played by Stephen Tobolowsky), the guy almost immediately fades into the background, just another McGuffin.
The film skirts some of the creepier aspects of Henry's time-tripping, but they're hard to suppress in these suspicious times. It's all hearts and flowers when the naked guy in his 30s and 40s haunts a little girl in that Edenic meadow, but what keeps a teacher from screaming bloody murder when she spies a perfect stranger (Henry) hugging a child (his daughter) in her charge? And isn't it some kind of infidelity to flee an angry wife to kiss her 18-year-old, innocent self somewhere else in time?
In this movie the intractable paradox of time travel is Janus-faced. On the one hand, Henry can visit his beloved dead mother, an older version of daughter Alba can drop in to comfort her younger self, and even after death in one time zone, the traveler may live on in other times. But there's also something a little scary about being trapped forever in endless temporal loops, evoking the Escher-like "recursive occlusions" that nearly did in that limey Time Lord, Dr. Who.
What most disappoints about "The Time Traveler's Wife" are hints of rich, unmined possibilities the movie never really tackles. In reality, we all live with people we love who might disappear at any time. We make do with our mortality, visiting and revisiting touchstone memories to sustain ourselves through passing seasons. There's genuine magic in the way our imaginations time-travel: in memory; in fictions; through a powerful, long-lived connection with another person. In "Time," both Henry's iconic handprint fading from glass and that enchanted meadow, a lovely landscape seen in summer, fall, winter and spring, are metaphors for us, mayflies who can dream of eternity.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.