‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ remake turns lovely novel into a creepy, convoluted mess
Rose Leslie and Theo James star in an HBO Max series light on romantic chemistry and heavy on the cringe.
If Hollywood ever decides to make a third adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s elegiac and lovely and wonderfully trippy sci-fi romance novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife” — and I really hope they don’t at this point — maybe they can subtitle it “Lost In Translation.”
Because we’ve had two gigantic misfires thus far: the 2009 feature film that bombed despite the presence of Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana and now an HBO limited series oozing with creepiness, tone-deaf attempts at rom-com “humor” and myriad scenes that left this reviewer flummoxed.
Please allow me to introduce you to the madness with a quick recap of a scene involving one Henry DeTamble, who has the ability to zip back and forth through time and is often occupying the same place on the continuum. When Henry is 16, he somehow arranges it so he can visit his 16-year-old self, thus creating two teenage Henrys.
And why does he do this? Because Henry is 16, and he’s horny and inexperienced, Henry proceeds to perform a certain sexual act on … Henry.
If that’s not cringe-inducing enough, Henry’s widowed father walks in on the two Henrys and catches them in the act. Later, Henry’s dad says, “You went gay for yourself,” to which Henry replies, “Come on. I was 16.”
A six-episode series available Sunday on HBO Max.
Created by writer and producer Steven Moffat (“Coupling,” “Doctor Who”) and set in Chicago but filmed primarily in New York (and you can tell we’re not in Chicago most of the time), “The Time Traveler’s Wife” opens with a documentary-style conceit in which Rose Leslie’s Clare Abshire and Theo James’ Henry DeTamble are interviewed, separately, about the strange vagaries of a romance in which one of the participants is a time traveler.
“Why is love intensified by absence?” asks Clare, while Henry responds to an inquiry about what it feels like to time travel by saying, “Normal, you know. Like nothing. Like your attention wandered for a moment, and suddenly the book you’re reading is gone, your coffee is gone, the room is gone, and you’re ankle-deep in a ditch.”
Then, BOOM! For the first of many, many times, we’re plunged into a scene featuring a naked Henry careening through time and landing with a violent thud, often on a cold and rainy street or in an embarrassing situation, like when he surfaces nude in front of the Bean, and a group of schoolchildren shriek in horror.
I know. Eeesh.
Henry has been time traveling since he was a little boy, but he has virtually no control of when he’ll vanish and when and where he’ll reappear. He can’t take anything with him, including clothes — each time he’s dropped into another time period, he has to rustle up some clothes, “Terminator” style, figure out what age he is and seek out Clare.
Clare is the love of Henry’s life, and Henry is the love of Clare’s life just because.
They “meet” when Henry is 28 and working at the Newberry Library, and Clare is 20 and a student at the School of the Art Institute. But, by that time, Clare has known Henry for 14 years because a 41-year-old Henry has been visiting her in the fields behind her home ever since she was 6.
“It’s complicated,” Henry and Clare say more than once, and it’s also problematic. When Henry is 35 and Clare is 12, and they’re hanging out and playing checkers in the field, it’s a lot more weird than charming, especially after Henry lets it slip that they’ll be married someday.
As Henry bounces through time, Clare is on a linear path, meaning sometimes she knows more than Henry and sometimes less, depending on Henry’s age when he drops in. The effort to demonstrate Henry’s various ages seems halfhearted and relegated to length and color of hair. He always looks the same.
We meet a number of key figures in their lives, including Henry’s father Richard (Josh Stamberg) and his late mother Annette (Kate Siegel), an opera singer who was decapitated in a car accident while young Henry was in the car. Also: Henry’s best friend Gomez (Desmin Borges), who is thoroughly unlikable and is in love with Clare, and Clare’s best friend Charisse (Natasha Lopez).
Eventually, those in the inner circle learn about Henry’s condition, but their reactions are strangely understated and played mostly for dark laughs that never materialize.
Graphics inform us of Henry and Clare’s ages from scene to scene, such as: “Henry is 36, Clare is 28.” But the fact that multiple Henrys can exist in the same time makes for some ridiculous and convoluted setups, as when we’re told, “Henry is 8 and 24 and 38 and 39 and 23.” What are we even supposed to do with that?
Theo James (“Divergent”) is movie-star handsome but does not display movie-star charisma. He plays Henry as snarky, shallow, wisecracking and flippant far too often.
Rose Leslie (“The Good Fight”) is the grounded center of the series as Clare. But we keep waiting for her to realize that all she ever talks about with Henry is his situation, that they don’t really seem to have some great love connection, and she’d be better off moving from Chicago and telling Henry it’s time to move on.