The Time Traveler’s Wife is a movie for people who aren’t really that into time travel. It avoids getting bogged down in the sci-fi specifics of its premise, in which a man named Henry (Eric Bana) spends his entire life jumping through time from one year to the next, and instead focuses on the emotional impact that has. The result is a film that’s kind of like The Notebook meets Quantum Leap, and not just because it co-stars Rachel McAdams. Yet director Robert Schwentke’s approach to Henry’s never ending time travel dilemma is simple and sentimental. After a summer full of overly complicated and utterly empty robotic explosions, it’s a welcome relief.
Unfortunately before it can get good, Time Traveler’s Wife begins with one of the worst cinematic sins. If there are people in a car and they’re happy, we know they’re going to die. It’s a scene that’s been done to death so many times it’s expected. No one ever shows families riding around on screen unless something horrible is about to happen to them. It’s a cliché well past its expiration date, but it’s on full display here as six-year-old Henry’s first leap through time happens to help him escape danger. Luckily the clichés stop there, mostly. Stick with it.
Henry grows up, never knowing when he’ll fade from sight only to reappear in a different decade, leaving a pile of clothes behind. As any good time traveler knows, you can’t take your pants and so Henry’s life is one of constant nudity. He fades away, appears somewhere else, and instantly begins a mad dash to find underwear. He’s forced to become a thief and an expert lock pick, smashing car windows and breaking down doors to grab covering wherever he can find it. Sometimes he’s lucky and he’s drawn back to familiar places, places where he’s learned to leave clothing. Like gravity, certain locations draw him to them and he’ll jump back to them over and over again, sometimes in different years, sometimes into the same year where he’ll bizarrely, encounter an older or younger version of himself.
But Henry’s time traveling adventures aren’t really the focus of this story and we see them only in brief glimpses because soon, he meets a girl. When Clare sees him in the Library where fortunately, he had clothing stashed amongst the books, she’s known him his entire life. To him, she’s a perfect stranger. Year later during her first meeting with him, their roles are reversed. And so their romance travels in strange loops of disjointed moments, their love controlled by fate. Clare struggles to accept that she never knows when he’ll be there or for that matter how old he’ll be when he is, and Henry keeps jumping through time, out of control and headed for a future which cannot be escaped.
It sounds complicated but the specifics don’t matter. All that matters is that Henry appears, disappears, and can’t control when it happens. He gets married, tries to have a family, tries to grow old, but no matter how hard he and Clare try nothing is ever normal. It’s a strange problem with a very simple, love conquers all message. It’s the movie Benjamin Button should have been, the story of people connecting and holding on, an intimate portrayal of family life repeatedly interrupted by bizarre events. If there’s a failing in the film it’s that it often pulls away when it should push. It’s a tear-jerker, sure, but it could easily have left the audience a complete and total wreck. Instead it holds back, minimizing some of the more dire aspects of the book it’s based on, and passing up opportunities to show the darkest side of Henry’s problem. The consequences of the life he’s forced to live are blunted, in favor of focusing on his relationship with Clare, home alone again.
Yet The Time Traveler’s Wife earns its tears and perhaps by dulling some of the story’s edge we’re saved from a tale which might otherwise have slid past beautifully bittersweet into the realm of disturbingly dark depression. Instead it’s a sad but satisfyingly romantic tale of two people whose love is a slave to the cruel whims of unpredictable chance. Grab a box of Kleenex and drown happily in star-crossed sentiment.