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Date night's a bitch for The Time Traveler's Wife

Shortly after the release of The Time Traveler's Wife — Audrey Niffenegger's 2003 best-selling sci-fi novel about a woman who falls in love with a man from the future — Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Jacob's Ladder) started adapting it for the big screen. But when the studio decided to hire another writer to work on it, he lost the job.

"I had fought like mad to get the job and met with all the producers and started imagining how it was going to work," says Rubin, who thought Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston should play the leads. "Another writer came in and got the job. It was totally devastating to me."

Then, four years ago, he was vacationing in Costa Rica and got a call that a new director had been hired, and his services were once again requested.

"It was extraordinary," says Rubin. "I sat down, and four weeks later, I had the script. I just knew what the movie should be. I knew it was a love story and follows the arc of a love story. It doesn't matter where it went in time as long as the love story was moving forward. It's important that you're not just cognitively involved but also emotionally involved. You don't want to watch something purely from your head unless it's Memento, which is its own kind of experience."

The Time Traveler's Wife creates its share of cognitive dissonance. Told out of sequence, it begins with the death of young Henry's mother, who's killed in a horrible car accident. But Henry, who's in the back seat at the time of the accident, manages to live, thanks to his ability to travel through time. Flash forward a few years and Henry (Eric Bana) is all grown up, working in a library. When Clare (Rachel McAdams) approaches him, she realizes she knows him.

Turns out an older Henry befriended a much younger Clare on his time travels, and they would meet regularly in a large field on the property where Clare grew up. The two get married and everything is going smoothly until they try to have a baby. It turns out the fetus is a time traveler too, and one miscarriage follows another until they get some help from a somewhat skeptical doctor (Stephen Tobolowsky). While the time-traveling sequences are artfully done (thanks to some nifty digital effects, Henry simply fades away on the screen until he's gone), the love story is the film's focus. Much like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the film is about a couple who have to fight against the odds so they can be together.

"The core of the book is most definitely there in our screenplay," explains Bana. "It's about this impossible love between two people in love who get wrenched apart by this time-traveling device."

Making a film that constantly switches from the present to the past wasn't easy, especially for Bana, who had to constantly change his appearance to reflect Henry's age.

"We just looked at each other and at our costumes and our demeanor and could figure out where we were in the story," says McAdams. "[Director] Robert [Schwentke] was on top of it when it came to the timeline."

But despite the time-traveling gimmick, The Time Traveler's Wife is really a chick flick (and a pretty good one at that). It tugs at the emotional heartstrings relentlessly as Henry and Clare cope with the fact that Henry literally isn't there much of the time.

"When I read the novel, a lot of things resonated with me," says Schwentke (Flightplan). "I had been looking for a love story, because I wanted to make a movie about a stage in my life. I just wanted to make a movie that speaks to what it's like to be in a committed long-term relationship."

jniesel@clevescene.com

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