Though “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is more about the guy than his wife, the reference to Mrs. Time Traveler in the title is important. It’s how you know it’s not a science-fiction story but a romantic drama. Like many such tales, it is about a woman who loves a man that she can never completely have, even though he loves her too. In this case, it’s because he’s forever jumping back and forth in time. But it could just as easily be because he’s married to someone else, or going off to war, or a vampire.
The film doesn’t do as much justice to the story’s tortured romance as Audrey Niffenegger’s novel did, but it’s an effective drama nonetheless. Adapted by Bruce Joel Rubin (who wrote “Ghost,” which seems fitting) and directed by Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan”), it succinctly establishes the world it takes place in — a world where time travel is possible — and then lets us experience, to some extent, the feelings and emotions that would naturally occur in such a world.
The time traveler is Henry (Eric Bana), a Chicago research librarian who’s been randomly hopping through time ever since he was a kid. He cannot control it, though his trips are always to times and places he has some connection to (so no visits to ancient Rome). When he goes, he disappears from sight and arrives wherever he’s going buck naked. Returning to the present is just as unpredictable and clothing-free. At locations he frequently finds himself revisiting, he stashes clothes for next time.
You can imagine the toll this lifestyle would take on Henry’s wife, Clare (Rachel McAdams). It’s one thing for your husband to miss your anniversary because he’s out drinking with his buddies. It’s something else for him to miss it because he’s in 1980. But Clare knew what she was getting herself into. In fact, she’s known Henry almost all her life — the adult Henry, the one already married to Clare, has been jumping back in time to visit her ever since she was 6.
The film deals with the goofiness inherent in this situation, not to mention the awkwardness of a naked time-traveling man appearing to a young girl, by not trying to make it appear plausible or scientific — in other words, by not dealing with it. Schwentke knows there’s nothing he can do to change your mind if you don’t accept the basic premise. The idea is that while the specifics of the story are fanciful, the underlying emotions are not. If you can buy the supernatural element, everything else should fall into place.
It works, for the most part. Bana, rarely a very lively actor, is well-cast as a tortured, brooding fellow, just as he was in Ang Lee’s “The Hulk.” (Curiously, both films have him playing a character whose physical transformations leave him naked afterward.) It falls on Rachel McAdams — no stranger to this sort of thing, thanks to “The Notebook” — to give us someone to relate to, and her sweetly optimistic performance is just what the film needs.
Occasionally, the movie feels like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer, more detailed story (which it is, in a way); the lean screenplay might be too lean, sacrificing depth for a shorter running time. But as “date movies” go, it’s one of the better recent examples, with angst-filled romance (and Eric Bana’s butt) for certain segments of the population, time-space paradoxes (and the beautiful Rachel McAdams) for others. And when a future version of Henry materializes one night, seriously wounded, then disappears again before you can find out why (or when!) — well, that’s bound to pique anyone’s interest.
B (1 hr., 47 min.; )