True love must be a given in any film romance for it to win our hearts. In movies, even more than in life, if you have to ask why two people love each other, their amour is in trouble.
What a filmed love story needs far more than logic or reason are moments when the viewers can share the unspoken, instinctive communication between the newly smitten and then the intimate rapport they nurture over time. These moments can be as simple as Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche sitting on a bench in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" or as slapstick-complex as Diane Keaton and Woody Allen trying to cook a lobster in "Annie Hall."
The would-be tear-jerker "The Time-Traveler's Wife" gives you none of that emotional nourishment as it traces the parabola-like marriage between Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams), an artist, and Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana), a Chicago librarian who possesses a genetic anomaly that causes him to ping-pong back and forth through time. The plot is like a machine designed to manufacture poignancy.
Clare must weigh her passion for Henry against the uncertainty of not knowing when he'll disappear and what age he'll be when he reappears. She ages naturally, and he keeps getting older, too - but sometimes he returns years younger, for hours at a time, until he bounces back.
It might be a solid hook if we thought their love was grand. Instead, it's kind of creepy. Over the course of a dozen years, between ages 6 and 18, Clare knows Henry as a magical adult stranger dropping in from the future to visit her in the meadow in back of her family's mansion. He always loses his clothes during time travel and spends their first meeting draped in a blanket, but even his nakedness doesn't terrify her: She begins to leave out clothes for him.
And that's not the creepiest part. When they first meet as adults in Chicago, Henry doesn't know anything about her because he hasn't yet time-traveled to the meadow. (He remembers only the time jaunts he's made up to that point in his life.) Clare, a woman already in love, is the aggressor. Years later, in the throes of marital discord, Clare accuses Henry of leaving her no romantic choice, because he won her over when she was a girl. It's hard to argue with her.
Although the movie rests on our belief that fate brought them together, all we see is a man charming the life out of a little girl in a series of impromptu picnics. It's as unsettling as man of the world Maurice Chevalier singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in "Gigi."
Director Robert Schwentke and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (who adapted Audrey Niffenegger's novel), simply want us to embrace, without question, Henry and Clare as what Tom Stoppard called "The Real Thing." But the moviemakers fail to turn their plucky, attractive stars into even a reasonable facsimile of true lovers. They're too busy uncoiling the narrative to evoke the kind of individualistic, emotion-charged reveries that should hover above the characters and linger in our minds.
Both Bana and McAdams are so strenuously and generically ardent here, I wondered what they were thinking of when they were miming passion and woe: A favorite pet? A high school crush? Or maybe some missing pages from the book?
Viewers beware: The film also contains a subplot about serial miscarriages. The reigning mood is racking melancholy. Henry says Clare makes him feel safe and not alone, and there's good reason: He first traveled in time at age 6, right before his mother's car slammed into a truck. (The way it's filmed, you wonder if her distraction at his disappearance killed her.)
The real thing does enter the movie in one relationship, and it's not romantic. Michelle Nolden as Henry's mother, Annette DeTamble, and Alex Ferris, as Henry at age 6, establish such easy, affectionate and particular rapport - she's an opera singer, but Henry has trouble carrying a tune - that you feel you know everything about their generous give-and-take from one conversation. In the movie's best scene, the adult Henry talks to Annette on a subway (she doesn't know who he is) and they establish an odd closeness effortlessly. This scene has everything Henry's scenes with Clare painfully lack: spark, intimacy, and hidden meanings that gradually move to the surface. I left "The Time-Traveler's Wife" wishing it had been "The Time-Traveler's Mother."
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for disturbing images, nudity and sexuality)
Running time: 1:47 minutes
Starring: Rachel McAdams (Clare Abshire), Eric Bana (Henry DeTamble) and Michelle Nolden (Annette DeTamble).
A New Line Cinema release through Warner Bros. Directed by Robert Schwentke