"The Time Traveler's Wife" is a modern day fable of love in the face of a genetic anomaly that keeps tossing a guy named Henry, naked and quivering, in and out of his better half's life at the most unpredictable and inconvenient of times.
This happens first when young Clare is 6 and alone in a meadow and a 36-year-old naked stranger calls to her from behind the bushes. He asks for her blanket and wants to say "Hi." Now, that is a very tough love-at-first-sight moment to pull off with the innocence that Audrey Niffenegger managed in the graceful book on which the film is based.
It is also the first of many clues that adapting this romantic drama starring Eric Bana as the oft bare Henry and Rachel McAdams as the object of his affection might be far more difficult than director Robert Schwentke imagined.
On the surface, the story is a poignantly simple one, with Henry given the wisdom and knowledge that normally comes only at life's end. For him and Clare, there's never a doubt that they are soul mates, that their love will endure. Henry's seen it on his travels.
That misplaced gene creates a case of life interruptus for Henry, who is forever ping-ponging around various decades. His journeys have him bumping into his future and his past, and Clare. As a result, life unfolds in fragments, often painful, particularly for Henry, who learns early on that while he might be able to see the future, he can't change it. Since everything is so out of sync, and with all those unplanned day trips, Henry and Clare always have a lot to talk about, which is more than you can say for a lot of married couples.
There are other rich possibilities created by time travel, which by its very nature upends many of the normal romantic conventions. When early in the film a grown-up Clare discovers Henry in the Chicago library where he works, she knows they will marry; he doesn't even know they'll have dinner. All of which she explains over said dinner, which may be why what should have been a steamy night for the lovely couple comes off as chaste. It turns out that love needs a little mystery.
McAdams as Rachel is luminous, with a dimple so deep Henry can drown in it. And Bana does naked quite effectively, so even though the wife sometimes wishes he wouldn't travel so much, most of the rest of us are hoping for more.
On-screen, the two of them are beautiful; in fact, the entire look of the film, thanks to cinematographer Florian Ballhaus ("The Devil Wears Prada"), is ethereally lush.
Yet where there should be heat, a cold wind blows. When the film's fate rests on the alchemy of its stars, you really don't want to get that wrong. But here, chemistry is a problem, and it proves a significant one. Instead of blazing passion, flames igniting emotion, bodies melting into each other, our fireplace has but a few scattered embers, covered in ash and barely glowing. That Ballhaus has created such saturated beauty on-screen makes it sadder still.
And then there's the whole time-traveling issue. It's not so much that Henry disappears; it's the way he disappears.
In the book, that seminal moment, that conceit on which the entire story rests, is described as a sort of tingling sensation that builds as your body disassembles then reassembles. It's never a soft landing either. You turn up naked, confused, in a place and time you know nothing about with not a penny to your name. It sounded intense.
In the film, it looks as though someone has taken a Photoshop eraser to Henry. The result is a dissolve that looks mechanical when it should look emotional. It's as if the CGI studio was locked that day.
Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin ("Ghost") has stripped the book to just the bare essentials of Henry and Clare's story and softened some of the more wrenching moments, though we do watch the couple go through the pain of multiple miscarriages.
The film should have swept in and swept us off our feet with its grand romance and a story that is a welcome relief from the cliches of desperate girls chasing Neanderthal guys that has become Hollywood's default love story. Sadly, McAdams' facility as an actress is mostly wasted, and you wish that Bana could have borrowed some of his haunting intensity from "Munich."
But wishes aren't enough, and we never get the fairy-tale ending, just a glimpse of what might have been.
'The Time Traveler's Wife'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release