The Time Traveler’s Wife is one of those movies in which every action taken and every line of dialogue, really everything down to the minutest gestures put forth by the actors, appears calibrated for maximum emotional effect. Director Robert Schwentke and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin want you to cry, cry and cry some more and they never avoid an opportunity to remind you just how tragic everything is. Watching the film brings to mind the spectacle of a giant mechanized waterworks churning to life.
As the lead, Eric Bana carries himself with the kindhearted majesty of a Christ figure and Rachel McAdams, his love interest, practically overflows with earnest, big eyed emotion. The central gimmick, rife with logical leaps, casts Bana’s Henry as a man stricken with an unfathomable genetic disease. Very often, completely at random, he time travels against his will. This wreaks havoc on his relationship with Claire (McAdams), the love of his life from the very first, creepiest time he met her, as a grown man transported back to her adolescence, standing naked in the bushes and asking her for a towel.
The episodic time spanning premise saps the movie of any genuine feeling. It’s hard to evoke much that’s relatable in the deceptively mundane way of real life when the audience must be constantly reminded that they’re to face big, weighty issues and be terribly moved in doing so. When a movie’s proudly about destiny, the nature of true love, the timelessness of certain feelings and deep philosophical questions of self-identity there’s not much room for anything else. As such, we learn nothing about Henry other than that he time travels. Claire has been given a vague artist job, the go-to profession in these sorts of situations, but she’s too busy being deeply, deeply in love with Henry to reveal what makes her tick.
The characters are pawns of the undeniably lovely cinematography, which sweeps and pans across time and space, past sun beams poking through picturesque forests, across vast wavy fields and in and out of warmly decorated parlors. The imagery more or less melts away any resistance, at least until it too spirals out of control and into the dregs of cheap melodrama. The big emotional piece de resistance occurs during a holiday celebration. The contrast between the weepy, distraught faces and the booming fireworks lighting up the night sky is almost too much to take, and not in the way Schwentke wants.
The film has been designed, in the same vein as that other insufferable McAdams vehicle The Notebook, to provide the exact goods Hollywood has classically determined to be desired by women. There’s a dreamy, handsomely flawed man, a pretty, not too perfect wife, a luxurious home, meditative landscapes, love, sex, laughter, sadness, death, really the whole shebang. Seasons come and go, fall foliage transforms into winter landscapes and what Joni Mitchell deemed “the carousel of time” goes on and on.
Amazing that a movie crammed to the brink with some of the most deeply felt of all human feelings, theoretically so in tune with some big ideas, could be so flat and unaffecting. But with Schwentke, the grand puppet master, pulling the strings it’s hard to react to the passions on display with anything short of callous disregard. Every scene centers on some big development in the lives of the central figures and the seemingly random employment of the time travel conceit, which sends Henry to the exact time and place most convenient for the narrative, makes it appear to be no more than a mere screenwriter’s gimmick. It’s the most blatant manipulation in a film full of them.
Hollywood has a long, grand tradition of producing quality melodramas, dating back past Douglas Sirk to the days of D.W. Griffith and other masters of the silent form. Despite the increasing prevalence of movies like The Time Traveler’s Wife, which tug at the heart strings with the aggression of a linebacker pursuing a quarterback, one could amass an impressive list of romantic dramas of recent decades too. But the best examples of the genre share the one characteristic this one blatantly lacks: An understanding of the deeper powers of subtlety and restraint.
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