A film review by Craig J. Koban September 8, 2009


2009, PG-13, 107 mins.

Clare: Rachel McAdams / Henry: Eric Bana / Richard DeTamble: Arliss Howard / Gomez: Ron Livingston / Dr. Kendrick: Stephen Tobolowsky / Clare as a child: Brooklynn Proulx

Directed by Robert Schwentke / Screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin, based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger

If a Rachel McAdams-aholics Anonymous actually existed, then I would most certainly have to sign up.  I must confess: I am an addict that needs help.  Seriously, I would watch this radiant Canuck actress in a film involving her painting her toenails for 90-minutes straight.  I'm sure there are also many a female fan that would also be willing to watch Eric Bana in just about anything…minus the toe-nail painting.  THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is on firm and secure ground whenever these two irreproachable attractive and appealing actors are on screen together: the chemistry they generate is natural and palpable.   

Question, though: Why are they so ruthlessly squandered in a film that is unpardonably ridiculous? 

I normally conduct myself with the utmost respect and dignity when writing my reviews, so please allow for me an exceptionally rare opportunity to engage in a very insolent, childish rant:  

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is a stupid, stupid, stupid movie.    

Before all of you worshiper’s of the original book that the film is based on (a 2003 debut work by Audrey Niffenegger, which sold millions of copies) cry a resounding foul…hear me out.  I am a virgin to the source material, so I am only called upon to review what I’ve seen (in this case, the film adaptation).  And, yes, I understand what Niffenegger was attempting with her sci-fi/romance/love-conquers-all story: She uses the concept of a man that spontaneously travels through time in and out of another woman’s life as a frustrated metaphor for failed and doomed relationships.  I get that.  Really, I do.  I also get that she is trying to dissect important themes such as love gained and lost, the barriers of love, and the sometimes-difficult arena of free will.  I get that too.  I also get that many have read  a not-so-subtle feminist slant into the book (how women emotionally suffer with the chronic absence of the men in their lives, especially when only the men are given such latitude to be absent whenever they please).  

I get all that. 

What I don’t get is that this film sets up a series of time travel rules and boundaries (all which are painfully vague and explained in minimal fashion) and then it does not adhere to them.  I have seen countless films involving temporal travel and they all post tricky conundrums for the critic: Oftentimes, the temptation is to nitpick and obsessively pull apart the logical loopholes and paradoxes that exist with time travel of characters.  There are good examples of the genre, like THE TERMINATOR films, which allows for us to rigidly ignore all of the glaring and obvious loopholes it lays out with its time travel narrative primarily because they work so efficiently as well-oiled action spectacles.  Then there are the BACK TO THE FUTURE films, which use paradoxes to zany effect.  On the opposite spectrum, there are films like the recent THE LAKE HOUSE (which proves that TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is not the first film to mix romance with time travel), which never bothers to explain its phenomenon, but still left me asking oodles of questions about its internal logic, which all but overrode my buy-in to the film’s story.  THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, like the insipidly dumb and wrongheaded Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock vehicle, made me suffer from too many migraine-induced head shakes from the logic-bending developments in the film.   

Just consider the plot: Henry (Eric Bana, always reserved, internalized, and sturdy) is a time traveler, although he has no ability to control it.  Ever since he was a child he has spontaneously been able to travel through time, back and forth from past to future, typically within his own life.  Stress and alcohol consumption seem to be triggering effects, but he nevertheless can’t control it.  Even more embarrassing is the fact that when he travels he leaves behind his clothes and appears at some point in time (whether it be 1987 or 1992) in his birthday suit (akin to the time explorers in THE TERMINATOR series).  He lives a pathetic and sad existence, jumping all over time, naked, oftentimes shivering from the cold or writhing in pain, without much assistance. 

What’s odd is that he seems compelled (for reasons unexplained) to visit certain environments and time points, and in particular he visits a particular green and bucolic meadow where he meets and befriends a little girl named Claire (which, yes, is as creepy as it sounds: a naked man comes out of the bushes and befriends a cute and innocent girl).  His frequent visits to her lead to a budding relationship, but Henry knows that he and the adult Claire (McAdams) will be an inseparable item in the future and will be married.  It’s fate, I guess, because in this film there is no free will, even when certain characters make no attempts whatsoever to make choices.  At one point Henry travels to a Chicago library and meets Claire when she is 21: this is the very first meeting for him, but one of many for Claire - don’t forget, she was visited by an older version of Henry from the future when she was five, so the younger Henry that meets her at 21 has no memories of meeting her when she was five because he has not lived up to the point where he does travel back to meet her when she’s young. 

Is your brain fried yet?  Mine is. 

Anyhoo’, despite the frequent visits, numerous meet-cutes between the pair, etc., Claire always seems incontrovertibly drawn to Henry, and they do eventually become a couple and inevitably walk down the isle.  There is a real problem that impedes their happiness: Henry can’t stop going back and forth in time.  Sometimes a 40-year old Henry meets Claire when she’s 18, whereas there are other times they are closer in age.  Sometimes, Henry confronts his own child self, which leads to the film’s many problematic loopholes (like, for example, why does he not prevent past catastrophes in his own life from happening by warning his past self?).  Needless to say, Claire shows a Herculean level of understanding, patience, and strength of character by waiting around endlessly for her husband to return and/or abruptly leaving at highly inconvenient times.  At one point they have a large argument where Claire states that she can’t "handle" him leaving her anymore.  Gee…ya think? 

Here’s something that the film can’t overcome: I never believed for one second that the independent and assertive Claire would stick with this guy for a lifetime of misery.  This is a relationship doomed from the start.  But, why does she do it?  Because Henry from the future has indoctrinated in her since she was a tyke that she is destined to be with him, even when it’s a very grim relationship.  Many have commented on how touching the romance of the film is, citing that these are two star crossed lovers whose passion for one another has no boundaries, even within the space time continuum.  Yet, this is so ass-backward wrong; if anything, Henry’s treatment of Claire is vindictive:  He continually reinforces to her that she must be with him in the future, even though he has knowledge that she will be unhappy with his many exits and, worst of all, she will suffer many dreadful miscarriages while with him.  The love and romance in the film is anything but sentimental and moving: its deceitful and treacherous.  How Henry could allow Claire to be manipulated into being with him – despite all of his future knowledge – is the epitome of cruelty. 

Oh, but wait…Henry cannot alter the past in any way, no matter what he does.  Even if he tries to save his mom from dying in a horrible car crash, or stop Claire from wasting her life with him, or, more consequential, changing things that have more world spanning significance (like JFK’s death or 9/11), he will fail.  But how?  Well, he explains that he can’t and thusly makes no concrete efforts to alter the past.  Consider: if you knew your mom was going to die, and as a kid you knew you could travel in time, why not tell yourself as a child before the accident when and how she’ll die, which would save her?  Or, why not have the conversation with your mother in the past?  At one point Henry does talk to his mom before she’s dead.  Does the conversation occur about the particular day she dies?  No.  Why?  Beat’s me.  Oh, wait, Henry gave the egregiously simplistic reason in a throwaway dialogue passage earlier in the film: he just can’t.  The exasperating simplicity of this argument given against meddling with the past was beyond irritating. 

Perhaps even more frustrating is that the film goes out of its way to offer up a reason why Henry can travel in time.  At least the outlandish THE LAKE HOUSE was smart enough to avoid explanations, other than to say that two lovers, separated in time, could communicate with one another via a mailbox.  In Henry’s case he sees a geneticist that – in the film's largest, unintentionally laughable sequence – informs him that he has “Chrono-Displacement Disorder" (I won’t even dignify this further).  Okay, so the film reveals how he can travel, but it’s dead on arrival when it comes to overlooking some obvious paradoxes: For example, Henry from the early 1990’s travels to visits Claire in the very recent present and calls her on her cell phone to pick him up.  Now, wait…how would the Henry of the past know future Claire’s cell phone number, which didn’t exist in the past. 


I know, I know…I am not supposed to focus primarily on all of the time travel paradoxes of the film, but the TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE makes it exceptionally easy for me to do so, mostly because it does not have a brain in its head.  The screenplay – written by Bruce Joel Rubin, an Oscar winner for his script for GHOST – is trying for similar themes here for how two people are drawn together regardless of their predicament.  I guess on certain levels, the film will appease worshippers of the soppy, syrupy, and romance-gusher genre.  And, to be fair, McAdams is as glowing as ever and plays her part as straight as possible, which allows for some much needed levity in the film.  Also, Bana is a solid, complimentary pillar to McAdams and he sells Henry’s emotional confusion and pathos with relative ease.  Yet, as much as I tried, I just could not overlook how stupid, stupid, stupid the film around them was.  I always try to ignore the nature of paradox in time travel flicks, but THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE is so head-smackingly absurd that I found myself questioning everything in it more than being caught up in the searing romance within the film.   Even more disconcerting is that the film never really comments on the greater themes of determinism versus free will.  This could have made THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE a endlessly compelling, water-cooler discussion effort, but instead the script settles on cheap, manipulative, and simplistic definitions and rationales.  

Trust me, free will exists, so you can definitely skip THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. 

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