“The Time Traveler’s Wife” may not make a lick of sense, but it does make for fairly irresistible nonsense. Auds who like their supernatural cinema rigorous and cerebral may have trouble warming to this beguilingly irrational tale of two soulmates finding and losing each other across time and space. But despite its breezily demented Mobius-strip construction, the film’s unerring emotional logic, anchored by a pair of actors (Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana) who give themselves over to the conceit completely, should win over a solid, femme-driven audience, with even stronger returns from date-night ancillary.
Adapted from Audrey Niffenegger’s 2004 bestseller, the picture falls in a tradition of endearingly ridiculous, impossibly dreamy sci-fi romances, from 1980’s “Somewhere in Time” to 2006’s “The Lake House.” Like those films, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” insists on a love that transcends both time and common sense; with the winsome pairing of Bana and McAdams, it’s a fantasy that, for the most part, happily rings true.
Things get off to a rough start as a fiery car crash claims the life of a woman but not that of her 6-year-old son, Henry (Alex Ferris), who, at the last minute, unwittingly teleports himself into the recent past. Quickly returned to the accident scene, Henry meets an older version of himself (Bana), who abruptly informs the traumatized tot that he has just traveled through time. “He,” of course, refers to older Henry and younger Henry, both of whom have the ability — or rather, the uncontrollable compulsion — to hopscotch between past, present and future.
Confused yet? As penned by Bruce Joel Rubin (Oscar-winning scribe of another paranormal love story, “Ghost”), the film plays out as a series of chronological seizures, a la “Slaughterhouse-Five,” leaping back and forth across the long arc of Henry’s life — the dazzling centerpiece of which is his relationship with earthy, dark-haired beauty Clare (McAdams). Here they are, meeting for the first time (or is it the 200th?) in the library where Henry works. But there he goes, back to a lush green meadow where he tries to convince 6-year-old Clare (Brooklynn Proulx) he’s her friend without giving away that he’s also the love of her life.
Stymied at first by exposition that complicates more than it clarifies (when Clare says, “I don’t know what the hell’s going on,” you want to tell her to get in line), helmer Robert Schwentke (“Flightplan”) keeps the narrative threads moving so swiftly, and with such hypnotic urgency, even viewers who initially object to the film’s silliness may find themselves firmly in the grip of its romantic delirium. (For some, it won’t hurt that Henry’s condition forces him to time-travel in the nude, one of the few rules the pic sticks to with dogged consistency.)
“The Time Traveler’s Wife” asks viewers to surrender their reason but not their wits; there’s pleasure to be had in working out the story’s puzzles (because there are multiple Henrys in play, details of hair color become especially important) and poking holes in its paradoxes. Never so somber that they neglect the entertaining possibilities of their premise, Schwentke and Rubin playfully invest their storytelling with a real sense of fun, even mischief — from the door-slamming farce of Henry and Clare’s wedding to the highly pragmatic solution Clare takes when she has trouble carrying a child to term.
The governing principle here, unusual for the time-travel subgenre, is that even when Henry tampers with his past, he is fundamentally unable to alter his future. For all its obvious forerunners, the film emerges as a close cousin of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” another bittersweet account of two lovers trying to live together as best they can in the face of inconvenient and unusual biological circumstances.
McAdams draws on the romantic-tearjerker chops she displayed to captivating effect in “The Notebook,” while Bana suffers, endures and charms like a pro. While they’ve had meatier roles, the two actors keep this restless film firmly grounded; its focus on them is so consuming that even the fine supporting cast (including Ron Livingston and Arliss Howard as Henry’s friend and father, respectively) has little time to fully register.
The pic is set in Chicago but was mainly shot in Toronto; the locations have an old-fashioned, picturesque quality that, along with capable visual effects and clever camera tricks, heightens the film’s underlying sense of fantasy. The story may fall apart the minute the credits roll, but any movie that can wring fresh emotion from the image of two lovers running toward each other across an open field is clearly doing something right.