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Published: Friday, 8/14/2009

Movie review: The Time Traveler's Wife ***1/2

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) is a time traveler.

His shifts in time don't involve an intricate device born of the imagination of H.G. Wells; his is a simpler, stranger agent - a gene anomaly.

The downside to his temporal journeys is that Henry can't control when he leaves and where he goes. His body just quickly melts into nothingness, leaving behind only a pile of the clothes he was wearing.

Given his condition, Henry keeps to himself. But against his better judgment he falls in love with a young woman, Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams). Their relationship leads to a predictable set of complications, the biggest being how the couple can withstand the stress of Henry's sudden time shifts.

But his travels never take him very far, only backward and forward through the years of his life - particularly the big moments, such as the death of his mother and his time with Clare. In his late 30s, Henry often travels back to when Clare was a young girl - he even coaches her on what to say to when she meets him years later while he's working as a researcher at a Chicago library.

In the logic of The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry is able to travel back to Clare, even though they never met of their own accord. But wouldn't the two have had to have formally met at some point? Otherwise, how would an older Henry be aware of her?

And for that matter, how is it that the nearly 6-foot-3-inch Bana as Henry is able to easily find clothes that fit him when a time shift renders him naked? Are we to believe that every suit he steals from a car, and the sweaters and pants he finds in dusty rooms, are tailor-made for him?

Such loops in logic are much of the fun of time-travel movies, and also much of their problem.

There are other perplexing conundrums in the film, too, but if that seems to be nitpicking - and you may be right - The Time Traveler's Wife is probably for you.

Based on the bestselling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife is not the epic love story its trailer would have you believe. Conversely, it's also not the syrupy, maudlin mess you expect either.

Written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who has experience with fantastical love stories - he wrote 1990's Ghost - and directed by Robert Schwentke (2005's Flightplan), The Time Traveler's Wife wisely stays just this side of sappy, even during the film's predictable hanky-at-the-ready conclusion. But it's also fairly predictable, even by time-traveling-story standards. Rubin and Schwentke don't go out of their way to disguise the plot twists to come. Easy-to-discern visual and aural foreshadows are peppered too liberally and literally throughout the film.

A little more suspense and surprise would have gone a long way to making The Time Traveler's Wife more satisfying and different.

Perhaps because of its predictable nature, the movie is reliably good. Not great, but good.

Bana and McAdams do make for a nice pair, though they don't steam up the screen with their passion.

Most of the work in making The Time Traveler's Wife believable falls on Bana's shoulders. He delivers a steady performance that doesn't fall prey to the film's emotional turns, even at its sappiest.

While our sympathies lie with Henry, as the film's title lets on, the story is really about Clare. She's the one who suffers the topsy-turvy turmoil of having her soulmate drift mysteriously in and out of her life.

As Clare, Adams runs the gamut of emotions, from a love-struck teen to a cautious, heartbroken wife. Like Bana, Adams is up to the task. Still, you can't help but wonder why, when given the choice to move on, Clare chooses to remain with Henry.

Is their love so powerful and intoxicating that it keeps them together even as one constantly slips away?

The Time Traveler's Wife offers more questions than answers.



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