It's actually kind of amazing how often the time-travel subgenre marries to romance stories. Longing to return to a simpler past or hoping for a brighter future are staples in any love affair, especially tragic ones. (Not to mention the similarity between a clock's ticking and a human heartbeat.) Just look at Somewhere in Time (1980), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), The Love Letter (1998), Happy Accidents (2000), Kate & Leopold (2001) and The Lake House (2006) for a few interesting examples. What I don't understand is the very soft, goopy tone that most of these movies automatically adopt, with the exception of Brad Anderson's dark, tense Happy Accidents and James Mangold's standard-issue romcom Kate & Leopold.
Consider the new film The Time Traveler's Wife. It comes complete with a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for his hugely successful sci-fi romance Ghost (1990) as well as writing very twisty sci-fi stories like Jacob's Ladder. In its favor, Ghost had a very amusing supporting performance by Whoopi Goldberg, and some action and suspense scenes, as well as a show-stopping love scene in front of a pottery wheel, set to the tune of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody." In other words, it pleased most of the male dates who were forced to see it. So Rubin turns in his new screenplay, which was based on Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 novel. And, who knows? It may have once been funny like Ghost or twisty like Jacob's Ladder. Then comes director Robert Schwentke, a German transplanted to Hollywood whose last film was the generic thriller Flightplan (2005).
It's tough to say what happened at that point, but I suspect that as soon as Rachel McAdams was cast as the female lead in The Time Traveler's Wife the pressure was on to make not another Ghost, but another The Notebook. And Schwentke caved. The checklist: Take out all the humor. No pottery wheel scene, and nothing raunchier than a caress. Drip the whole thing in soft, gooey gauze. Allow plenty of pauses for weeping. Sorry, but even with the words "time traveler" in the title, no guy is going to want to sit through this. However, if you're a chick, the movie mostly works. It's not particularly smart, but it disguises its lack of smarts well. The movie plays with and plants certain gimmicks that help to move things along, and some of the scenes even have a warming quality to them.
Eric Bana stars -- and if you're making a movie without any laughs, you probably can't do any better -- as Henry DeTamble, the time traveler of the title. Since he was a kid, he occasionally disappears from his own time and re-appears in some other time, either past or future. He can't control when these time-shifts happen and he can't control how long he's gone. He only travels to major events pertaining to his own life. He also can't change anything when he gets there (the movie avoids any sticky time paradoxes this way). The movie never explains this phenomenon, other than to say that it's genetic. People rarely mention dates or ages (although in one scene, there's a poster for a Pavement concert on a wall). The biggest drama is that Henry arrives without any clothes, and so he has learned lock-picking skills in order to acquire clothes and preserve his modesty.
McAdams plays Clare, who as a little girl meets the full-grown Henry during one of his time-visits. She grows up on his semi-regular visits, dreaming of the day she gets to marry him. When they finally meet as consenting adults, she knows all about him, but he has never seen her before. No matter. They're destined for each other, and what's more romantic than that? Arguably the movie's best scene takes place at their wedding, where Henry phases out just before he's supposed to walk down the aisle, but a neat solution presents itself. I was hoping for the other half of this scene at the movie's climax, but apparently the filmmakers either chopped it out, or else it never even occurred to them.
More drama occurs later, when the couple tries to have a child, though Clare keeps having miscarriages because of Henry's genetic problem. (I'll leave it at that.) The movie raises several potentially interesting subplots but never follows them up. Henry has a best friend, Gomez (Ron Livingston), who appears to have a thing for Clare, but nothing ever comes it. Neither does anything come of Henry's distraught father, who apparently is completely cured after attending his son's wedding. Stephen Tobolowsky is a welcome sight as a geneticist who tries to help Henry, but, again, there's not much to this. The good news about cutting down on these outside trifles -- as well as the scientific details of Henry's condition -- is that the movie seems ever more interior, more intensely focused on the loving couple and their trials.
Neither Bana nor McAdams break any great new ground in their performances, but they're very likeable together, and they manage to play through the stages of a several-year-long relationship with grace, including some subtle aging. All this adds up to a mildly successful time-passer, though one too concerned with trying to target its audience rather than with trying to figure out where it's actually coming from. If only this ludicrously tragic romance had found time for some laughter through its tears.