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Dustin Putman

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The Time Traveler's Wife  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Robert Schwentke.
Cast: Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana, Ron Livingston, Arliss Howard, Stephen Tobolowsky, Jane McLean, Brooklynn Proulx, Alex Ferris, Michelle Nolden, Hailey McCann, Tatum McCann.
2009 – 108 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 13, 2009.
If 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was stripped of its depth, lyricism, emotional power and existential complexity, it might end up looking a lot like "The Time Traveler's Wife." A romantic drama about star-crossed lovers who have a difficult time being in the same place at the same time—one of them is uncontrollably whisked away at random through the past, present and future—the film's major downfall is in its failure to make the viewer care. The core relationship between young artist Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams) and time traveler Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) is the key that should hold together the fantasy story's leaps in logic and plausibility, but there is no heat, soulfulness or gravitas between the characters or the actors. We, as an audience, should feel beyond a shadow of a doubt that these two are meant for each other, but we don't. That is the true kiss of death for a motion picture of this sort.

At the age of six, Henry and his mother Annette (Michelle Nolden) were involved in a fatal car accident on Christmas Eve. Upon hitting his head, Henry disappeared from the backseat and reappeared alongside the road just in time to witness the explosion that took his mom's life. Visited by an older version of himself who explained to him his new, entirely unorthodox time-jumping destiny, Henry eventually grows into the very man he once saw before him. When he first meets Clare in a public library, she is overjoyed to see him. For her, he has been her best friend since childhood and more than that since she was eighteen. He doesn't remember her because, in his chronological timeline, he hasn't yet lived those earlier occurrences. No time is wasted for reciprocal love to grow between them. Despite the odd circumstances of their relationship—Henry can disappear for weeks or months at a time—they marry, buy a house in the Chicago suburbs, and look toward having children. Conceiving and carrying a baby to full term proves difficult, however, and time is running out; spurred by a vision of Henry bleeding to death in the foyer of their home, the two of them must face the prospect that his days may be numbered.

Based on the best-selling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, "The Time Traveler's Wife" doesn't make much sense and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (2007's "The Last Mimzy") doesn't bother to explain it. Not even taking into account the plot contrivances and discrepancies that litter the narrative landscape—and there are a lot of them—director Robert Schwentke's (2005's "Flightplan") inability to give greater meaning and feeling to the all-important central romance is where things really go wrong. If the film at least worked on that level, it would be easier to accept the far-fetched premise. Alas, there is very little joy and spontaneity captured in their scenes together, and even less of the little details, quirks and special intimate moments that make up a genuine, meant-to-last relationship. It all feels tediously mechanical, right down to the inevitable melodramatic ending.

Unlike the intricately designed, tightly woven "Back to the Future" trilogy (which, by the way, still hold up), "The Time Traveler's Wife" collapses upon the slightest of scrutiny. No matter how hard Henry tries to go back to the moment of his mother's death and reverse it, he never can. That's the point. History cannot be rewritten, and one's fate is already predetermined. How, then, is it possible for Henry to cosmically leap forward in time, learn of the lottery numbers, and then go back to buy Clare the winning ticket? Besides being dishonest—they think nothing of cashing it and taking the money and running—it simply does not hold water that Henry's singular ability can impinge upon the natural order of things. Also established is that Henry cannot decide when he disappears and where he is going to time travel to. If this is the case, then how come he shows up in front of his younger self at one point with urgent information to give him? When Henry goes to see a doctor (Stephen Tobolowsky), inquiring about his condition, one expects there to be an answer to his supernatural abilities. After all, they only started after he bumped his head during the childhood car accident. Is the issue neurological, brought about by his injury? At the same time, we are led to believe it is genetic and can be passed down to his kin. So which is it? The filmmakers seem to want it both ways, but the subplot peters out before any definitive explanation is reached. Finally, the big reveal involving Henry's ultimate demise is laughably forced.

Eric Bana (2009's "Funny People") is disappointing as Henry DeTamble, never substantially exploring the impact a life of constant time travel could have on a person's psyche. His performance seldom journeys beneath the surface of his character. As Clare, Rachel McAdams (2009's "State of Play") emanates an exuberance and sincerity that is tailor-made for the romance genre, but her character manages to feel underwritten even with her being onscreen throughout. The plot trajectory is so stringent that there simply is no room for the characters to breathe. Instead, they just go through the paces. Of the supporting cast, Ron Livingston (2004's "Little Black Book") is wasted as Gomez, a pal of Henry's who discovers his secret. When Henry tells Gomez late in the picture, "You've been a great friend," it comes off as manipulative and disingenuous since these two characters have spent all of two or three short scenes together. Better is Arliss Howard (2007's "Awake"), effectively inhabiting the role of Henry's mourning father, Richard, and all of the children's performances, including Brooklynn Proulx (2005's "Brokeback Mountain") and Alex Ferris (2007's "The Invisible") as the young Clare and Henry.

Amidst all of the indifference that comes from Henry's and Clare's courtship, there is a deeply touching scene where an adult Henry travels back in time to share a warm moment on the subway with his beloved mother. She doesn't know, of course, that Henry is her son grown up—indeed, she will not live long enough to see him become a man—but there is a bittersweet connection all the same. It is a wonderful and honest moment, unquestionably heartfelt, and it is a shame this emotion could not have carried over to the story's Clare/Henry focus. Is "The Time Traveler's Wife" terrible? Not really. As it plays, it doesn't offend one's sensibilities so much as it frustrates the viewer that he or she isn't getting as involved as intended in the plight of the characters. Striving for meaning as it revolves around the process of life, the film remains perilously thin and unenlightening. By the conclusion, a lot of dry eyes and aloof faces will be staring back at the screen—not exactly the desired response of a tearjerker.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman