Chicago librarian Henry (Eric Bana) can't stay in one place, having a genetic condition that unsticks him from time and plunks him back--or forward--to random critical events in his life. Having no control over the destination or the timing of his jumps--and no way of bringing clothes--he develops questionable talents, such as petty theft and lock picking, and finds solace in solitude and sousing. Upon meeting Clare (Rachel McAdams), a young artist with a strange foreknowledge of Henry's plight, the two embark on a strange and oft-interrupted romance after she reveals that he's visited her several times in her youth, beginning with a surprisingly uncreepy visit to her 6-year-old self (Brooklynn Proulx) in her parents' meadow (apparently young Clare was never taught to run away from naked strangers). The film chronicles the pair's relationship through wedded bliss, separation anxiety and, eventually, the start of a family. But Henry's prolonged and unpredictable absences wear on Clare, and she begins to wonder if Henry will ever become the charming, dashing knight of her fantastic childhood fairy tale.
This summer has seen its share of Bana, with the Aussie import playing a villainous alien (Star Trek), a cuckolded husband (Funny People) and now the Christopher Reeves-esque chronologically displaced lover (remember the '80s time-travel weeper Somewhere in Time). His portrayal of Henry is his most modulated performance of the three, straightforward and engaging. McAdams likewise does an excellent job portraying a long-suffering wife without becoming a shrew. While the script (penned by Bruce Joel Rubin, scribe for pseudo sci-fi works Ghost and Deep Impact) follows more of a "tell, don't show" approach that weakens the repercussions of Henry's dilemma, the solid showings by Bana and McAdams--and Ron Livingston's short but excellent screen-time as best friend Gomez--help usher viewers past the material's shortcomings.
Mercifully, the mechanics of Henry's timeslippage are mostly left unexplained. He suffers from some type of genetic chrono-displacement-who-cares-it's-a-movie condition that is exacerbated by stress, drinking and exposure to television. And that's all we know about it. Having recently complained that too many films substitute artificial obstructions in place of real story, let me qualify those words. While some have no doubt labeled the Time Traveler's Wife as gimmicky and forced (as did many reviewers of the author Audrey Niffenegger's book), I admired the conscious simplicity of the main narrative device. Many conventional relationships have a disjointed set of expectations and attachments without the excuse of time travel, and adding this element heightens this natural disparity. When the pair first meet in real time, she's had a 14-year relationship with him, while he doesn't know her from Eve. Yes, it's shaky science taken at face value, but the film is a dramatic fantasy, with heavy emphasis on the drama. We're not watching it for graphs and feasible explanations, but for deep sighs and the emotional arousal that it ably delivers.
German director Robert Schwentke (best known to American audiences for 2005's Flightplan) and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus do a nice job aping the style of McAdams' big breakout, The Notebook (fans of that film are the real target audience). And while the Time Traveler's Wife may not be an excellent film, it certainly fits the bill as a moderately challenging romance. For many, it's exactly what we want in a date movie, a chance to massage our sentimental sore spots and snuggle with our non-chronologically challenged sweetie. And Broken Social Scene's onscreen cameo covering "Love Will Tear Us Apart" at a wedding may be the slyest irony we've yet seen this summer.