© 2009 Ray Wong
Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, was itself a fantasy come true: a small-press published science-fiction love story that went supernova totally based on word of mouth. This movie shows how adapting the high-concept, complicated story to the visual media was a challenge.
Henry (Eric Bana) seems like any other ordinary Chicago librarians, but he has a secret. Since the age of nine, he's been time traveling involuntarily. His first time-traveling experience also caused his mother's death, when an older Henry arrives just in time to tell nine-year-old Henry everything would be all right. Over the years, Henry learns enough survival skills (such as stealing clothes and money since nothing but his naked self could time travel) to manage his "condition." But he feels alone -- his father blames him for his mother's death, and he can't share his secret with anyone.
Years later, Claire (Rachel McAdams) bumps into Henry at the library, and she acts as if she's known Henry her entire life. The fact is, she has, although this is the first time Henry has ever met her. It seems that the future Henry has been visiting Claire at the meadow of her father's stately house since she was six years old. She knows about Henry's condition, but she hasn't seen Henry since she was 18. Furthermore, Claire has been in love with Henry and is determined to marry the man. Which she does, after their short (or long, depending on whose perspective we're talking about) courtship.
But Henry's condition poses unpredictability and hardship on their marriage. Henry has no control of when (and to when) he will time travel, and there are times when he would be gone for days or weeks. Also, Henry could end up in dangerous situations during each travel. Claire manages to deal with Henry's absence and potential danger. But when they try to conceive, complications threaten their relationship. Henry's condition turns out to be genetic and the unborn baby could inherit his problems. In addition, Henry begins to visit the future and he doesn't like what he sees...
Eric Bana (Funny People) is dashing and appropriately serious and broody as Henry. He also has a difficult task to play a role out of chronological order: one minute he is a 20-something tortured time traveler, and the next he is a mature husband in his 40s. Bana does his best, but sometimes his performance doesn't show enough differences to show us Henry's jumbled life.
Rachel McAdams (Holmes) is radiant and love-sick as Claire. Her character has idolized and loved the older Henry since childhood, but she has to reconcile her dreams with the tortured man she actually has to live with, and all the problems that come with his condition. McAdams handles the role nicely and shows growing maturity as the character grows.
The rest of the cast has true supporting roles since the story is really about Henry and Claire. Ron Livingston (American Crude) seems miscast as Gomez, Henry's best friend. There is simply no depth to his character and the friendship between him and Henry is underwritten and performed. Arliss Howard (Awake) also seems an unlikely choice as Henry's father: for one thing, he's too young (the actor is only 55 years old); he also share no resemblance to Eric Bana. Michelle Nolden (The Perfect Man) is graceful in her small role as Henry's mother. There's a key scene with her and the older Henry that is poignant and heartbreaking. Mostly known for comedy, Stephen Tobolowsky (Failure to Launch) also is miscast as a doctor who may be able to fix Henry's genetic condition. Hailey and Tatum McCann are wonderful, however, as Henry's daughter (age 9 and 5 respectively).
Writer Bruce Joel Rubin (The Last Mimzy) has the thankless job of adapting Niffenegger's chronologically complex and thematically rich romance. And the result shows. Rubin manages to streamline the story to focus on the core relationship between Henry and Claire, but his focus is wrong. The movie is called The Time Traveler's Wife, but the point of view seems to be Henry's and not Claire's. Granted, Henry is a more interesting character, since he is the one doing the time traveling, but the heart of the story is really about Claire's trial and tribulation dealing with her love for a man who won't stay. In that regard, Rubin misses the boat. The dialogue also borders on sappy. Sure, it is a love story, but we don't really need cringe-worthy saccharine-soaked dialogue to understand "yes, they love each other very much." Rubin could have trusted the source material and the actors to pull that off.
Rubin also has made the mistake of altering some of the book's most poignant and significant elements. Henry's genetic condition and treatments are glossed over. Henry's friendship with Gomez is underwritten. And the plot doesn't spend enough time on Henry and Claire together. Also, the foreshadows of what would happen to Henry might have worked in the novel, but they seem forced and contrived in the movie. The altered ending also lacks the emotional punch and poignancy of the original -- that's something I wish the filmmakers hadn't changed.
What Rubin and director Schwentke (Flightplan) have succeeded is maintaining the romantic, wistful mood of the story, which is very much about enduring love and separation. The film retains the aches of yearning and parting, of waiting and anticipating, of knowing and not knowing. Thematically, the filmmakers have succeeded in making us care about the characters. Bana and McAdams are great as a couple, and it would have been emotionally more satisfying to see them together. Yet Schwentke's slow and deliberate pacing often dulls the story, exuding certain lethargy that zaps the charm out of the fantastical story. Certain key roles are also miscast, further marring the production.
Under apter hands, The Time Traveler's Wife could have been a sweeping genre-bending love story that fascinates the mind and captures the heart. As is, the film is a missed opportunity and unfulfilled promise. It'd have to take some traveling back to the past to correct that.
Stars: Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana, Ron Livingston, Arliss Howard, Michelle Nolden, Stephen Tobolowsky
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: Bruce Joel Rubin (based on Audrey Niffenegger's novel)
Distributor: New Line
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.0 out of 10