The Time Traveler’s Wife

I wish I could travel back to a time when I hadn’t seen this movie.

Physicist Dave Goldberg has a fascinating Slatepiece this week on how The Time Traveler’s Wife stacks up against other movies with a time-travel theme. In a survey of physicists’ speculations on the possibility of time travel, he mentions one theory involving “gargantuan cosmic strings […] of matter of almost unimaginable density and length.” That about sums up The Time Traveler’s Wife, adapted from Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling novel by Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote Ghost, another metaphysically inflected love story). I’ll take Goldberg’s word that the movie obeys the laws of Einsteinian physics (no alternate universes, you can’t change history, etc.), but it’s in flagrant violation of the rules of narrative logic, character development, or the most basic audience satisfaction.

Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) has a genetic disorder that causes him to disappear at random moments into parts of his own future or past. Henry has no control over when he travels, where he goes, or how long he stays there; he simply evaporates, leaving a pile of empty clothes behind. (It’s not easy to imbue the image of a collapsing pair of pants with pathos, but director Robert Schwentke does his best.) Even the ever-renewed opportunity to see Eric Bana naked isn’t enough to keep these repeated disembodiments from getting old fast. The fact that Henry seems to have no learning curve—his only takeaway from all this zipping through time is “Dang, I’m powerless”—makes his character too passive to earn more from the audience than a vague sense of pity.

But The Time Traveler’s Wife isn’t really a sci-fi tale of temporal displacement; it’s a domestic weepie about the abandonment Henry’s wife, Clare (Rachel McAdams), feels each time her husband pops off for an unannounced holiday in another dimension. Clare’s plight is that of an army wife times a thousand; when Henry vanishes, she has no idea whether to set aside dinner for him that night or start looking for another mate entirely. The couple’s union seems to have been divinely predetermined by their first meeting in a meadow, when Clare was 6 and a naked adult man suddenly began calling to her from the bushes, asking if he could borrow her picnic blanket (in a scene that’s not in any way horrifyingly suggestive of pedophilia). But their destiny doesn’t make Henry less annoying to live with—though the DeTambles’ conjugal strife is significantly ameliorated by the fact that they’re stinking rich. (The already-well-off Clare wins $5 million in the lottery when Henry, on a trip to the future, memorizes the winning ticket number.)

There’s something curiously off about The Time Traveler’s Wife. McAdams and Bana are charming and attractive actors capable of elevating the most banal material (cf. The Notebook, in her case,and Troy in his), but both of them, along with many of the supporting players (especially Ron Livingston as Henry’s best friend, Gomez), appear stiff and glazed. Long spans of time pass between lines of dialogue, many of which seem to have been inexpertly translated from a foreign language so that they almost make sense but not quite. (“It’s so good to see you,” a traveling Henry tells his future daughter, played by the sisters Hailey and Tatum McCann. * “Me too, Dad,” she responds.) If, as Henry does in the film’s opening scene, I could pop in naked on my younger self to offer some wise counsel, I’d tell her to review District 9 this week and skip that screening of The Time Traveler’s Wife. And for God’s sake, hand over that picnic blanket.

Slate V: The critics on The Time Traveler’s Wife and other new releases

Correction, Aug. 17, 2009: The article originally misstated that Hailey and Tatum McCann were twins. (Return to the corrected sentence.)