Friday, August 14, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife: It flies

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009) • View trailer for The Time Traveler's Wife
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity, fleeting nudity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.14.09
Buy DVD: The Time Traveler's Wife• Buy Blu-Ray: The Time Traveler's Wife [Blu-ray]

Many patrons will start bawling 15 minutes into director Robert Schwentke's swooningly romantic adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, and they probably won't stop until the lights come up.

If then.
Even though she understands -- has always understood -- the severe problems
resulting from her decision to fall in love with Henry (Eric Bana), sometimes
Clare (Rachel McAdams) finds the situation more than she can endure. Briefly
walking out of a room, to return and find him vanished, is bad enough; having
no idea how long he'll be gone ... ah, that's the crippling part.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin's understated, impressively compact handling of Niffenegger's popular novel is further buoyed by quietly layered performances from stars Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, who credibly sell their characters' highly irregular relationship. The gimmick is presented in such a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner  this is the situation; deal with it  that we can't help embracing it, just as these two tragic protagonists live for the moments when they can embrace each other.

The Time Traveler's Wife is an unapologetic romantic fantasy, very much in the mold of 1943's A Guy Named Joe, remade in 1989 as Always, or 1998's Meet Joe Black. As with those earlier films, this one must be accepted on the story's own terms: If you can't get beyond the premise, then don't bother; audience members who whole-heartedly fall under this film's spell will look unfavorably upon anybody snickering on the sidelines.

Things begin quietly enough, as young Henry enjoys a late-night car ride with his mother. Although seemingly innocuous, Schwentke and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus frame the scene in such a manner that we quickly sense impending disaster. Indeed, the inevitable accident is horrific, but for more than one reason: Henry's mother's last sight is that of her son, inexplicably vanishing  being wiped away from reality, much like sand dissolving through an hourglass  seconds before the crash.

The boy pops back into existence just as unexpectedly, close enough to witness the crash, and tightly hugged by a man who also appears out of nowhere ... and explains that he's Henry's older self. The older man lingers just long enough to assure the boy that everything will work out; he then vanishes as quickly as he materialized.

Leaving his clothes behind.

Young Henry has, for the first time, manifested the ability that will haunt him from this day forward: an uncontrollable "gift" for jumping forward or backward in time. We never see the adolescent Henry again, Rubin's script instead focusing on the man (now Bana) who has come to terms with his "talent" as best he can.

The jumps are spontaneous, the destinations equally random, although  as the story progresses  we realize that Henry tends to be drawn toward some of the same places. His only (very brief) warning is a slight feeling of lightheadedness, such as one gets when standing up too quickly. Then, poof, he's elsewhere and elsewhen, scrambling once again to find clothing before getting arrested for public indecency.

It's no way to live ... and, indeed, Henry's lonely and anonymous life is as cluttered as the apartment he has trouble keeping clean.

Then, a miracle: While plying his day job as a research librarian, Henry is recognized by the effervescent Clare (McAdams), who knows him. Knows him very well. Although Henry is meeting her for the first time  the duality of this encounter, and the responses of Bana and McAdams, are perfectly calibrated  his various older selves have, at random moments in the future, time-tripped back into Clare's past, starting with a first encounter when she was but a child (Brooklynn Proulx, a truly gifted little actress).

Clare has grown up adoring Henry, and now finally has "caught up" to the present that he mostly (?) inhabits. Unable to comprehend that somebody knows of his affliction, and yet still wants to spend time with him, Henry remains wary. But not for long: Just as Clare's younger self could not help falling in love with a man who already knew he loved her, this slightly younger Henry can do nothing but respond in kind to a woman who views him as a soulmate.

The resulting courtship, marriage and shared commitment are ... tempestuous, to say the least. Some moments are played for gentle laughs, as when Henry vanishes literally within minutes of exchanging vows on their wedding day  his affliction often seems triggered by stress or excitement  but then a surprised Clare is able to complete the ceremony with an older Henry, who somehow was able to return to this important moment and get the job done.

Mostly, though, both Clare and Henry discover that life together is profoundly sad, despite their shared determination to make it work as well as possible.

More than that, you'll not get from me, except my profound gratitude for the stereotyped avenues this narrative avoids. Thus, we have no concerns that eager-beaver scientists will discover and subsequently experiment upon Henry; no intervention by criminals wanting to exploit his talent. No, the story settles for being about Clare and Henry, and that's enough.

A few other people know of Henry's curse: his father (Arliss Howard), of course, who still mourns the loss of his wife; and Clare's good friend Gomez (Ron Livingston), who also becomes Henry's best friend. These folks accept the situation and try to make the best of it, as friends and family members would if confronted with somebody afflicted by an exotic and incurable disease. They make do.

No flash, no histrionics. Oh, sure, the occasional awkward moment pops up, but the strength of these core relationships surmounts all else.

I need only mention that Rubin also scripted 1990's provocative but ultimately failed Jacob's Ladder and, that same year  and much more important, for the purposes of this discussion  his Academy Award-winning Ghost. That pedigree should let you know what's in store, in terms of both mood and likely plot hiccups ... and yes, Schwentke's mostly quiet touch notwithstanding, this film eventually unveils a core mystery with potentially chilling implications.

Along with a compensatory revelation.

Mostly, though, this film is powered by the strength of its performances. Bana is much better here than in throwaway trash such as Funny People, reminding us anew of the way he so capably carried the wild emotional arcs of Spielberg's Munich. Henry walks a delicate line: He deeply loves Clare but remains bothered by the way his behavior burdens her with the very loneliness he struggled against before meeting her.

Bana sells this duality  his eyes, his expression, persuasively haunted  and becomes the pluperfect tragic romantic hero.

Ann Brodie also deserves considerable credit for the superb make-up that makes Bana older or younger, as a given scene demands.

McAdams, for her part, leaves no doubt in our minds that Clare worships this man, and accepts his inevitable absences as the price to be paid for spending as much time with him as possible. At the same time, Clare's no fool, and her occasional bursts of temper betray a woman curious enough to wonder if she really had any free will at all, given the circumstances.

Howard makes a strong impression as Henry's grief-stricken father, forever having trouble believing that his son couldn't somehow find the means to prevent that long-ago accident. Livingston makes an impeccably noble best friend: unflichingly loyal, and we admire him for it.

Not all the complexities of Niffenegger's novel make it to the big screen. We never get more than a glimpse of Clare's parents, nor do we experience the home life that clearly shaped her as a girl. We also don't spend nearly enough time with Henry and Gomez, to see how their close friendship begins and builds.

The details of Henry's ability seem contradictory at times: Although unable to control when he vanishes, or where he might wind up, he clearly has some control; how else could his older self have arrived at his wedding day at the necessary moment? We get minimal lip service  "Time is like gravity," he explains to Clare, at one point. "Big events pull you in."  but that doesn't really cover some of the questions.

The involvement of a sympathetic geneticist (Stephen Tobolowsky) seems so much an afterthought that one suspects some of his scenes got left on the cutting-room floor: perhaps a deliberate move on Schwentke's part, to leave science out of this storyline as much as possible.

Such details remain to be enjoyed in Niffenegger's book, of course, which I've no doubt will experience a surge in sales for the next several weeks. As Ghost did so well, nearly two decades ago, The Time Traveler's Wife will reward multiple viewings by folks eager to experience its richly dramatic charms yet again.

Just keep the Kleenex handy.

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