Why and how does he do it? We never really know. It seems to be tied to certain moments of stress, beginning the first time when as a six-year-old he is engaged in a near fatal car crash with his mother, surviving only because of the first manifestations of his disorder.
Though there are diversions into Henry searching for a cure, for the most part his disease is left just a device to drive the plot. Which is fine in its way. Magic doesn’t work as well when you explain it, but it does waste tremendous amounts of screen time in trying explain what is essentially just a plot device, and to that end at least Robert Schwentke’s (“Flightplan”) adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s science fiction-y romance keeps its eye firmly pointed at its characters and how Henry’s condition affects him.
But only in the shallowest of ways. Despite obviously trying to concern itself with how Henry deals with his situation “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is mainly interested in using it as a slight twist for the relationship drama he lives in. He’s the husband who is constantly off traveling for business or whatnot, causing distance and frustration with his wife, Clare (Rachel McAdams).
And considering that relationship is what “The Time Traveler’s Wife” really wants to be about, it’s not particularly well-defined in its creation. Clare comes across as something of a dependent; through the particulars of Henry’s condition she has known him her entire life. Though Henry has no real control over where he goes or when, his subconscious seems to draw him to the places that matter to him the most; the sight of his mother’s death, his and Clare’s home, the garden where he meets her for the first time as an 8-year-old. She’s never really loved or been interested in any other man after meeting the older, worldly version, possibly substituting some cravings for attention and love from her father to Henry and never having to grow beyond them.
And that sums up the film itself. There are some deep issues available here that “The Time Traveler’s Wife” prefers to breeze right past in the name of light entertainment and satisfaction. Most of the film is like a warm mug of chocolate on a cold winter’s day. The deepest conflicts, like the strain of Henry’s disappearances (as he has no control over when he will return) or the complications his disease causes on their attempts to have a baby, have no real long lasting effects. Their life is reduced to a series of episodes, quickly gotten past, without any of the compromises that fill real life.
It’s not bad. Schwentke and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”) get some good, safe mileage out of the situations, thanks to great helping hand from Eric Bana’s excellent performance, combining a mixture of desperation and hope that never goes over the top. If it had some deeper material to work with, there might have really been something here, but nobody wants to do that.
As it stands, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is decent evening’s entertainment with an intriguing enough premise and some strong heart tugging to keep the women happy and the men from getting too bored. But it’s so safe, so tame. The most entertaining films are the ones that produce genuine drama and conflict. “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is content with just the Lifetime channel version of it.