The line between "romantic" and "creepy" is often pretty wriggly: You need look no further than "Wuthering Heights" or "Vertigo" to see what's compelling about destructive romantic obsession. But those works are effective because they own the courage of their convictions; they don't tiptoe around their subject in candy-ass half measures. "The Time Traveler's Wife," Robert Schwentke's adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's hugely popular 2003 novel, is something else. Although it's supposed to be supremely romantic, there's no daring in it, no go-for-broke passion. It's a nice little movie about romantic compulsion, just big enough to fit in a teacup.
Eric Bana plays Henry, a man who, because of a genetic disorder, is forced to live his life nonsequentially: that is, he's doomed to skip backward and forward in time without warning -- in each case, incidentally, leaving his clothes behind, which means he needs to find (or steal) new threads every time he hits a time warp. Clare (Rachel McAdams) has been in love with Henry since she was a child: One day he just appeared -- hidden in some bushes and begging for a blanket -- in the field behind her family's stately home. This grown man who drops by to see her now and then becomes her lifelong best friend. And as a grown-up, she believes they're destined to be together, at least as "together" as two people can be when one keeps melting out of his clothes and into the ether.
I'm sure "The Time Traveler's Wife" -- its script was adapted by Bruce Joel Rubin, the man behind the 1990 superhit "Ghost" -- is supposed to be laden with metaphorical riches, holding deeper meanings about the elusiveness of love, about our expectations of what love means, about the way even those closest to us are in some ways unknowable. I made an attempt to read Niffenberger's book and failed, but I'm willing to believe that a novel that strikes a chord with so many readers offers some kind of romantic lushness.
But the movie adaptation is a particularly inept piece of slick hokum; it doesn't even work as your garden-variety weepie. Schwentke, a German director who has made one previous American feature (the tedious 2005 thriller "Flightplan"), seems to be going for sensible, tasteful romance here -- he and Rubin may have recognized, somewhat rightly, that the time-travel premise is fantastical enough by itself; better to make the actual romance a bit more naturalistic.
But the movie's tone is shaky and uncertain, and its actors seem lost not just in time, but in space. When the adult Clare spots Henry in the college library where he works -- it's been a few years since he last popped into the field to visit her, and she's a full-fledged grown-up now -- she approaches him with an alien glow in her eyes: "I've been in love with you all my life." He doesn't remember her -- as, he's previously assured her, he wouldn't -- but she presses forward nonetheless, and he's intrigued, rather than turned off, by her crazy-chick talk.
Henry gets his share of crazy-guy talk, too: At one point he appears, as a grown man, to his childhood self (who's just suffered a traumatic experience) and attempts to comfort him by blurting out, "I'm you -- when you grow up." Just about everybody in "The Time Traveler's Wife" is crazy, but it's supposed to be cute and somehow romantic. When Clare and Henry embark on a life together, trouble invades their happy home -- Henry's sudden disappearances sure don't help. (What follows constitutes at least a minor spoiler, so skip to the middle of the next paragraph if you're sensitive to such things.) Clare desperately wants a child but repeatedly has trouble carrying a fetus to term. The unborn children, apparently, are time travelers like their dad, with a tendency to wander off of their own accord. But Clare and Henry eventually do have a daughter. They name her Alba, which is exactly what most people do when they're finally blessed with the child they've always wanted: name her after a diet drink from the '70s.
At this point Clare, having finally achieved the sacred role of "mom," starts wearing droopy cardigans and smock dresses -- it's quite an achievement to make a glowing beauty like McAdams look dowdy, but damned if "The Time Traveler's Wife" doesn't pull it off. Meanwhile, Henry keeps a-wandering, frequently popping back to that field to check up on the little girl who will someday become his wife. It's common for new lovers to say things like, "I wish I knew what you were like as a little girl" or "little boy," and these comments aren't necessarily sinister -- they usually represent nothing more than curiosity about how the beloved in question came to become him- or herself. But the charm of Henry's frequent (and admittedly involuntary) visits to the young Clare eludes me. It's not so much that the scenes have pedophilic undertones -- Schwentke is careful to keep their mood sweet and harmless (although it's possible that makes them even more unintentionally creepy). It's just that they reek of "return to innocence" baloney. Henry is understandably delighted by this precocious, lively child; adult love, on the other hand, is often pretty much a pain in the ass. It makes sense Henry would keep returning to his pre-grown-up wife in that field, but his doing so isn't charming or romantic -- it's tedious and at least a little unsavory.
Bana isn't the perkiest actor in the time traveler's universe (although he did give a marvelous and very much alive performance in Judd Apatow's "Funny People"). As Henry, Bana portrays feelings of doomed, passionate love by wearing the look of slight discomfort that often accompanies indigestion. But he does seem to be trying hard to make the performance work -- it's just that the movie around him keeps pulling him under. McAdams, a gifted and resilient actress, manages to survive the picture's clumsiness. Although she's a bit too glassy-eyed in those early scenes, she does make Clare's devotion and frustration wholly believable. But there's not much she or Bana can do to rescue this dreary piece of romantic hooey. Clare and Henry are so deeply in love that neither the passage of time nor death can break the bond they share. And that's just too bad for them.