Going the Distance to Stir the Heart
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
August 14, 2009
Not that we needed any more evidence, but the perversity of mankind can be illustrated by what we find most romantic in our popular entertainment: Namely, thwarted romance. There's nothing that jerks a tear like two people head over heels who can't be together -- Catherine and Heathcliff because of death; Rick and Ilsa because of Hitler; Will and Grace because of . . . well, you know what we mean.
In "The Time Traveler's Wife," German director Robert Schwentke's adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's novel (with a script by Bruce Joel Rubin of "Ghost"), the lovely Rachel McAdams returns -- not to the madcappery of what is probably her biggest movie ("Wedding Crashers") but to the genre of her most beloved movie, "The Notebook." In that film, her character is kept from the man she loves (at least temporarily) by issues of class.
In "The Time Traveler's Wife," in which she plays the title role, the issue is time: Her true love, Henry (Eric Bana), is afflicted by a "rare" (i.e. ridiculous) genetic abnormality that causes him to abruptly leave the present tense for eras unknown, returning who knows when and in what kind of shape.
It's the kind of mutant disorder that makes a committed relationship an impossibility: Tell him to take out the garbage, and he ends up in the '60s.
In a sense, "The Time Traveler's Wife" is about men who leave, which doesn't make it particularly novel. But in another sense, the difficulties of being Henry and Clare serve as a metaphor for the obstacles to love that pop up in every relationship. And just as every woman seemed to find her own mother in "The Joy Luck Club," every lover will find a commonality with "The Time Traveler's Wife." As such, it will worm its way into the hearts of anyone vulnerable to stories about ill-fated romance and star-crossed love. Most people, one would guess.
What makes "The Time Traveler's Wife" work as drama, though, and certainly better than it might have, is an unhesitating emotional commitment on the part of the actors (and Schwentke). They are in total allegiance to a conceit which, had there been any semblance of doubt or ironic detachment, would have been rendered preposterous. To their credit, Bana and McAdams give it their all, regardless of plausibility, never wavering from the plot at hand and delivering in quasi-profound fashion what might have easily been a comedy.
Not that the circumstances aren't grim: When we first meet Henry, his mother is being killed in a car crash from which he has miraculously been snatched by his genetic quirk. We meet Clare (played by McAdams as a grown-up, and by the winning Brooklynn Proulx as a girl) as she is meeting a considerably older Henry after he is dropped into the shrubbery around the meadow where she lives, in need of a sympathetic ear and some pants. (Henry is swept out of his clothes and deposited naked in each time period he visits, providing many of the movie's situational giggles.) Clare falls in love with Henry, of course, but has to wait to meet him when they are both of a similar age.
And what's more romantic that the concept of waiting? Where would the history of popular love songs be without the concept of one lover saving him- or herself for the other? In that respect, "The Time Traveler's Wife" is as pure as the driven mush. And so, from a marketing perspective, it's a chick flick disguised as science fiction -- which, presumably, will mean girls can get guys to go see it.
Only time will tell, but there seems no question that tears will flow and hankies will suffer terribly. The mind may boggle at the inconsistencies and logistical impossibilities posed by all of Henry's disappearances, and tampering with the past, and his crisscrossing travels with his alternate selves. Einstein and H.G. Wells would have a few problems with this movie. Nora Ephron, probably not.
Contains sexuality, nudity and violence.