Time travel is a plot device most often employed in the what-if style of speculative fiction. Like: What if you could go back and kill Hitler in the cradle? Would you do it?
But “The Time Traveler’s Wife” takes it a whole other way: using time travel as the hero’s tragic flaw and saving grace, while telling the kind of dramatically romantic story that attracts women like moths. It’s the movie equivalent of an Oprah book – full of feeling with just enough ideas to make you think about it (but not too hard).
Based on a 2004 best-seller by Audrey Niffenegger, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” stars Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as Henry and Clare, who meet near the beginning of the film an unusual fashion: He works in a Chicago research library and has a secret; she already knows his secret – and has known him all her life, though he says he’s never met her before.
The long and short of it is that, as the title says, he’s a time traveler. He suffers from a genetic anomaly that causes him occasionally to disappear (leaving his clothes behind) and land in another time and place. He has no control over his comings and goings, though he’s learned the art of breaking and entering in order to quickly steal clothes for himself (since he shows up naked on the other end).
Clare tells him that, in fact, the future Henry began showing up in a field behind her house where she played, when she was a little girl. He visited her regularly, becoming her counselor and friend – to the point that she fell in love with him. Now she gets the chance to make the relationship real, with him as a young man.
Except that it’s hard to get a sense of permanence with someone who might disappear at any moment. That idea worked beautifully in the short-lived TV series, “Journey Man,” which had a similar trajectory and poignance. Think of it as a metaphor, perhaps, for contemporary life – in which you’re always being pulled away from family for work. It’s life in the multitasking world where, with a Bluetooth, you can be here and not here at the same time.
Or perhaps Henry is the epitome of the unavailable man – here today, gone today, talking a good game of commitment but unable to follow through on it. You can read all sorts of meaning into this conceit.
At bottom, however, this is a romantic tragedy about two people who are perfect for each other in every way but one. The tragedy lies in their decision to press forward anyway, to attempt to defy odds that they ultimately can’t beat.
Bruce Joel Rubin’s script seems scattered at first; it takes the viewer a while to figure out where in time Henry has popped up, when he’s returned to his own time – and what that time is. Gradually, the film orients itself, but not before a future Henry appears in the present on at least a couple of occasions.
Bana is an actor who seems born to play pathos, an impulse he needs to fight. His natural expression seems to convey sorrow or concern (think about “Munich”). It seems so basic but he’s an actor who needs to remember to smile more, even if it’s a rueful smile. Still, he’s got both the weight and the lightness for this role.
McAdams remains one of the most substantial yet inviting young actors around. She’s got the chops and the depth to play far more complex roles and invests this one with layers of feeling, holding her own with Bana.
At heart, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is a carpe-diem movie, preaching the gospel of living in the moment. That it’s also shamelessly tear-jerking in that warm, enveloping way that Hollywood can do so well from time to time is a plus, not a minus.