It's hard to make a movie about love's elusive perfection when you've got a pair of actors who generate zero chemistry. That's one of many dilemmas facing Oscar-winning Ghost scribe Bruce Joel Rubin and Flightplan director Robert Schwentke's big screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's well-received 2003 novel about a reluctant time traveler and the woman he worships. The book was a dark metaphorical fantasy, mixing science fiction with an examination of a marriage. Turning Niffenegger's literary hybrid into a high-concept movie romance requires us to fall head over heels for the passionate plight of Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams) and her temporally unstuck soulmate Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) -- but the contrived plot coincidences and the dead air between the film's photogenic leads keep getting in the way. Article continues below
When we first meet Henry, he's a six-year-old boy learning of his tendency toward Chrono-Displacement, a genetic deformity that finds him involuntarily traveling through time. That may sound like a neat talent, but a family tragedy teaches Henry that he can't use his abilities to alter history. As a librarian in his 30s, he meets up with Claire, who makes a rather brash announcement -- she loves Henry. She has ever since he first visited her when she was a child. They agree to marry, though her friends Charisse (Jane McLean) and Gomez (Ron Livingston) think that Henry's malady will be tough on their relationship. Of course, they believe nothing will tear them apart -- but trouble begins brewing in paradise when Henry's situation impacts both their ability to have children and their fate as lovers.
This is soapy, sudsy stuff, served up by a filmmaker who can't quite figure out how to produce anything magical or ethereal. What's supposed to be fanciful and dreamy instead comes across as odd and slightly creepy. Certainly readers saw nothing wrong with Henry's mid-30s adult sharing a few tender moments with an under-aged girl two decades his junior. But when realized visually, complete with Niffenegger's mandatory nudity (only the body travels through time, not the clothes), it comes off like a Harlequin novelization of To Catch a Predator. Even worse, Claire seems to easily sidestep her supposed eternal devotion once she discovers that her reproductive abilities will be hindered by Henry's defective DNA.
Perhaps the filmmakers are convinced that their female-friendly demographic, thirsting for a summer movie that doesn't feature giant exploding robots, will forgive such lapses in logic and taste in exchange for a good cry. But the notion of someone inadvertently traveling through time shouldn't be as pedestrian as this. Bana, reduced to being noble and chivalrous to a fault, often dissipates in a fog of flaccid emotions, while McAdams treats every close-up as a chance to show off her dentist's detailed handiwork. About the only actor earning their paycheck is little Haley McCann, who is certainly sunny as Alba, the eventual biological byproduct of our brooding lovers. Her scenes, along with a likeable, if limited, turn by Arliss Howard as Henry's devastated dad, represent the only points at which The Time Traveler's Wife comes close to connecting with its audience.
Rubin was much more successful when he channeled the supernatural for his infamous Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore vehicle. Here, the cyclical and literary nature of Niffenegger's material seems to have stymied the screenwriter's better judgment. By the end, when destiny has everyone dialed into something more dark and dire, the lack of a sympathetic investment really shows. As a symbolic attempt at arguing for true love's fleeting nature, The Time Traveler's Wife manages to convince us only of its own.