Audrey Niffenegger’s much-praised bestseller The Time Traveler’s Wife hardly seemed like a good contender for adaptation to film. As genetic oddity Henry DeTamble inadvertently and unwillingly jumps through time, he and the love of his life, Claire, create a complicated, asynchronous history: She first meets him when she’s six years old, he first meets her much later in his life. They’re endlessly out of sync, and struggling to bridge their emotional gaps. The resulting complicated, masterfully created tangle of timelines didn’t seem likely to make it to the screen intact. But after a lengthy, troubled production history, including a year on the shelf, the film is finally hitting theaters. And in the hands of director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Deep Impact), the problem isn’t the timeline—it’s everything else.
The issues begin with Eric Bana, who plays Henry as a flat, one-note character. The book’s version of Henry is a tragic, larger-than-life man with huge appetites for food, sex, alcohol, music, and normalcy; Bana’s version is flavorless and strangled, a guy whose affliction seems to have stripped away his personality, leaving only vague peevishness behind. When he first meets Claire (Rachel McAdams), he’s a veteran time-traveler who still seems incapable of understanding how she could know him when he doesn’t know her. And his woeful, pissy bafflement is symptomatic of a character—and a film—lacking in imagination. McAdams, by contrast, tries far harder to bring a sense of charm and energy to Claire, but since the film elides over most of their relationship-building in order to cut to the drama when things go wrong between them, she all too often comes across as a shallow brat.
The many scenes packed with awkward pauses and clumsy line-readings hamper the film irrecoverably, but even stellar actors might have stumbled amid the film’s portentous tone, which ratchets up the intensity at the cost of sincerity. Nearly every overplayed, melodramatic moment seems unearned, especially once Schwentke underlines it all with treacly music to drive the point home. The story is still mostly fabulous, and its novelty helps carry the film, but this still comes across like a poor high-school stage version: sincere and kind of sweet, but endlessly clumsy.