A story that works on paper sometimes can’t survive the leap to a literal and three-dimensional screen adaptation, and while I never read Audrey Niffenegger’s best-seller “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” I can only imagine that the scenes of a 40-something man getting chummy with his 6-year-old bride-to-be must have played better in the book. On film, it feels like “To Catch a Time-Traveling Predator.”
In the mid-1990s, Claire (Rachel McAdams) is thrilled to finally meet Henry (Eric Bana), the man she’s loved all her life. He, on the other hand, has no idea who she is; Henry, you see, has a genetic defect that causes him to jump backward and forward in time. When Henry gets older, he will begin visiting young Claire, but the 20-something Henry hasn’t done so yet, so this counts as his first meeting with Claire.
And if that paragraph gave you a headache, you’re not going to have much better luck with “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which plops us right into the story without so much as an opening title card, providing scant explanation regarding Henry’s time-jumping (he apparently can’t control it), who these characters are, how they feel about each other or why we’re supposed to care about any of them.
In true “Terminator” fashion, Henry loses his clothes every time he gets swept away, so when he lands in a new era, the first order of business is finding or stealing something to wear. Geographically, he appears to be limited to the greater Chicagoland area, but the rules seem to constantly change as to how far forward or backward in time he can go.
Claire marries Henry — even though young Henry disappears right before the ceremony and middle-aged Henry actually takes the vows — but later complains about his sudden disappearances, as though she didn’t realize that would be part of the deal. Granted, she rightly notes that she never had any choice about falling in love with him, since he begins wooing her in her childhood.
Again, this might have been romantic in the book, but on screen it feels like we’re watching the story of a young woman in one of those polygamist compounds who’s been paired off with a man before hitting her tween years. This isn’t a swoony love story; it’s a portrait of child abuse.
As the couple ages and argues over issues like child-bearing — Claire keeps trying but the fetuses keep time-shifting out of her womb; we should be thankful that the film doesn’t tell us where they land — older Henry finds comfort in his visits to young Claire while older Claire seeks succor in the occasional apparitions of young Henry. This winds up being a story about two people cheating on each other with each other.
Director Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan”) and adapter Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”) can’t get the love story right, and they aren’t even paying that much attention to the internal logic of the time travel. Not to spoil anything, but we see a detour in Henry’s last big jump; when that jump finally happens in the narrative, however, the detour is suddenly forgotten.
Bana and McAdams are two of the most charismatic performers working in the movies today, but even they can’t elevate this muddled mess. (It’s always nice to see character actors like Arliss Howard and Stephen Tobolowsky get work, in any event.) If you want romance with a little time-travel mixed in, rent “Slaughterhouse-Five” or “Time After Time” instead; “The Time Traveler’s Wife” will merely steal 107 precious minutes from your own life.