Time Reasonably Well Spent 

The Time Traveler's Wife Directed by Robert Schwentke

I spent the summer fearing the long-delayed film version of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. Niffenegger's novel about a "chrono-displaced" man — a genetic disorder causes spontaneous, machine-free time travel — and the woman who loves him is such a loopy miracle of geeked-out sci-fi plotting and tough-minded romance that it practically begs to be ruined by a gauzed-up soft-focus movie. The casting of Eric Bana (Henry, the traveler) and Rachel McAdams (Clare, the wife) calmed my nerves; the screenwriter of Ghost rejangled them.

So it may be with undue gratitude that I report the utter acceptability of The Time Traveler's Wife movie as directed by Robert Schwentke (Flightplan). Schwentke hasn't found much new poetry in Niffenegger's prose; he mostly glides the camera around with tasteful elegance, and occasionally throws in a neat image, like the handprint of a time-hurtled Henry fading away from a glass door. Mostly, this is the slicker movie-romance tearjerker version of the story — but as slick romances go, this is a pretty good one, with residual intelligence from the book for the filmmakers and actors to pick up.

These are not the performances for which McAdams or Bana, good actors both, will be remembered. They're used here more as movie-star shorthand: quick, attractive ways for non-fans to like the characters straight away, and stand-ins for the ideas readers may have formed on their own. Bana in particular is capable of sticking out the sharper edges that the screenplay keeps unobtrusive: Henry's drinking, broken family, and the violent life of a man involuntarily thrown naked into places and times unknown, all covered but rarely brought to the fore. For that matter, even the romantic stuff feels truncated; the movie is understandably eager to introduce the time traveling and get the audience acclimated to the way that twentysomething Clare can recognize twentysomething Henry because fortysomething Henry has visited her in her past slash his future. These timeline jumps flow smoothly and playfully on screen (far better than a review's description), but the young lovers don't get much time to, you know, talk.

Still, the simplified movie pretty much works: Schwentke gives the doomy sense of time slipping out of our grasp an insistent pull, and as far as McAdams weepers go, nothing in this movie about genetically produced time travel is as ridiculous or creepy as the suggestion that God can briefly cure Alzheimer's. Sometimes the combination of not screwing up and not being The Notebook is relief enough.


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