If you positively drenched Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five in goo, you might get something like The Time Traveler’s Wife. Much like Billy Pilgrim in the Vonnegut book, Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) of The Time Traveler’s Wife has become “unstuck in time.” Unlike with Billy Pilgrim, there’s really not much point to Henry DeTamble’s travels. With that in mind, the question of just why you should want to undertake this goo-ification comes into play. And for this question, I have no answer, unless of course you have some strange desire to envision what Vonnegut might have come up with had he written for the Lifetime Channel.
The premise of the film is this: Henry DeTamble pops willy-nilly through time at the drop of a hat. Since hats are in short supply, the film telegraphs this point by inserting music being played backwards on the sound track—an effect that grows in amusement value over the course of the film. Actually, the transitions are only sort of willy-nilly, since they mostly occur in a way that conveniently advances the plot, thereby serving the needs of screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (of Ghost fame) and, presumably, source-novel author Audrey Niffenegger.
The plot—such as it is—is a slightly creepy variant on Portrait of Jennie. It finds Henry encountering young Clare Abshire (Brooklynn Proulx) in the meadow behind her family’s estate. She’s 6 years old and he’s naked and 30-odd years of age. (For some reason, one’s clothes don’t time travel, allowing for lots of PG-13 buff nudity for Eric Bana.) Faster than you can say, “Want some candy, little girl?” he’s talked her out of a blanket, promised her he’ll come back and cajoled her into stealing some clothes for his next visit. She, of course, is immediately smitten with him in that way that only comes with clever writing.
She grows up to be played by Rachel McAdams, at which point, Henry and Clare meet under less dubious circumstances. However, even though Clare knows who Henry is, he doesn’t know who she is, because this is his 20-something self and that self hasn’t met Clare yet. Is this quite clear to you? It doesn’t matter. Her smittenness is intact and a romance ensues leading to a vaguely comical wedding where 20-something Henry vanishes and 40-something Henry shows up to stand in for him at the ceremony—thereby shocking Clare’s upright, uptight über-Republican, gun-toting father (Philip Craig) by suddenly having graying hair and needing a shave.
The movie then wanders around in search of a plot for a while, which it finds in a desire for a baby that leads to multiple miscarriages, which may or may not be the result of time-traveling fetuses—or, as the film calls it, “chrono-impairment.” (This raises other unanswered questions best left unexamined.) Then there’s the “big moment” when we are treated to a glimpse into Henry’s future that leads us toward the wholly predictable, mawkish and peculiarly unmoving ending. It’s this last aspect that so completely sinks The Time Traveler’s Wife: an almost total lack of involvement with the fates of the characters. That’s a big problem in a romance movie.
Matters aren’t helped by the film’s love affair with clichés. The movie’s opening is a perfect example. Any child—except young Henry (Alex Ferris)—knows that a youngster traveling with a parent who is singing while driving on a snowy night will be deprived of that parent before the reel is over. Perhaps one day children in movies will learn to tell the parent to shut up and pay attention to the road. If nothing else—and this may be considered to be a spoiler in some camps, so read on at your peril—the film offers one valuable lesson to time travelers everywhere: Never, ever marry rich girls with hunting-obsessed Republican fathers. You have been warned. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality.