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March/April 2014
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by Kathi Maio


I'M NOT the only one who has noticed that the adorable actress Rachel McAdams seems to have cornered the market on romantic dramedies about time travel. The only problem is that Rachel herself never gets to explore the past or future or alternate reality in these flicks. She always ends up a stick-in-the-mud of static modern life, while her male significant others experience the joys, horrors, and sheer adventure of jumping through time. The tendency for boys to have all the fun in movies is nothing new, of course. But we've expected things to improve in recent decades. And, in many cases, they have. But the plot life of three Rachel McAdams characters in a handful of films from the last five years helps to illustrate the regrettable gender dynamics that oft occur when cinema melds romance with time travel.

Let's get Woody Allen out of the way first. I don't need to say much about Midnight in Paris since I reviewed that movie in the September-October 2011 issue of this very journal. And the less said about the character, Inez, played by Ms. McAdams, the better. She is one of Woody Allen's ubiquitous shrew characters, designed to demean and exploit the male lead—who, until recent years, was played by Mr. Allen himself. Owen Wilson stood in for the author-director in this particular film, and he was able to mimic the befuddled, neurotic, but basically well-intentioned Allen character well. The key thing his protagonist, Gil, needs to do is get away from Inez, his shallow, grasping, and manipulative fiancée, and find a more agreeable lady friend. This he thinks he accomplishes when he falls back in time to the City of Lights in the 1920s, where he interacts with dozens of cultural icons, including Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds, and Salvador Dalí. He also encounters an open-hearted bohemian enchantress named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and quickly believes that he has found a soul mate.

The fact that a modern man should feel that a woman from almost a hundred years back would be a more simpatico love interest than a twenty-first-century gal is but the flipside of a theme that is also common in romantic time-travel movies: that modern women are miserable in their independent careerist lives and would (more or less literally) jump at the chance to go back to the nineteenth century, when men were men and women couldn't even vote. We saw an example of this in the delightful 1979 Nicholas Meyer mash-up of H. G. Wells, Jack the Ripper, and disco-era San Francisco, Time After Time. That film was, at least, very sympathetic to the modern bank officer played by Mary Steenburgen, even if it did eventually banish her to the Victorian era.

Later films like James Mangold's 2001 Kate & Leopold have been even more pointed in their rejection of the "liberated" modern female. In that rom-com, Kate McKay (Meg Ryan) is a wretched yet driven marketing exec who can't keep a boyfriend and can't cook a meal. So, of course, she swoons for a time-traveling 1876 nobleman played by Hugh Jackman. (Okay, I'll admit that Hugh Jackman is swoonworthy…but that is beside the point.) The fact that Jackman's Leopold incongruously combines gourmet cooking skills and new-age-guy sensitivity with his dashing aristocrat good looks only seals the deal. Before the credits roll, Kate is jumping back to the Gilded Age to find love and free herself from all her modern miseries. Or so sayeth the male writers and director.

Compared to a movie like Kate & Leopold, the two recent examples of time-travel romance featuring Rachel McAdams are very woman-positive. But that's not to say that there isn't a discomfiting subtext to both. This is especially true of 2009's The Time Traveler's Wife.

Based on Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling debut novel of the same name, the film chronicles the life and death of a (somewhat unreliable) librarian named Henry (Eric Bana), who has a genetic anomaly, termed chrono-impairment, that forces him to ricochet naked through his own past, present, and future. As the title implies, the story is also about the time-traveling fellow's life mate, a woman named Clare, played by Ms. McAdams.

I should just admit that of all the time-traveling romance movies I have watched—and I have seen me a few!—this is the one that most gave me the absolute creeps. For the audience first sees Henry meet Clare when he is a nude grown man hiding in a thicket. And she is a six-year-old lass (Brooklynn Proulx) playing in a meadow. That image, along with the aspect of secrecy in their initial recurring encounters, would put this movie on a pedophile's Hollywood top ten. It brought to this viewer's heart not a thrill of high romance, but an uncomfortable sense of revulsion.

And that feeling never really went away, even after Henry and Clare finally hook up when she is of legal age. While time-travel movies almost always contemplate issues of destiny and the inevitability of a life course, in this particular film it seems less that Clare is destined to be with Henry than she is doomed to have her life dominated by a random, peripatetic fellow who can help her win the lottery but can't actually be there for her when she needs him. At one point, Clare does blurt out: "You forced yourself into the heart and mind of a little girl." But that denunciation is a fleeting one, while her devotion appears complete. Even after his violent death, Clare waits for her husband to reappear in a time ricochet from their past rather than get on with the rest of her more limited life. Despite the final grand, fleeting embrace in the golden meadow, that's not bittersweet, but simply a bitter ending for Clare and the audience.

The most recent foray by Rachel McAdams into cinematic time travel comes in the form of an original romantic comedy from a man, Richard Curtis, who is well known for them. As a writer, and later as a writer-director, Mr. Curtis has made his mark with films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually. In his latest (and what he claims will be his last movie as a helmer) he adds fantasy elements to his recognizable romance riffs. The film is called About Time, and it focuses on the love life of an affable young chap, Tim (charmingly played by Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan). Shy and awkward, Tim is neither smooth nor successful in his relations with young women. So when his laid-back retired-professor father (the fabulous Bill Nighy) clues him in on the family secret, that the men (natch!) of his clan have always had the ability to travel back into their own, personal past, Tim knows how he will use this talent. "It was always going to be about love," he informs the audience, in voice-over.

Although his ability to retrace events does him no good with the dishy blond heartbreaker (Margot Robbie) visiting his family, things begin to look up for Tim after he moves to London and meets a young American woman, Mary (McAdams), at a total-darkness theme restaurant. Unfortunately, when he goes back in time to save his misanthropic landlord (Tom Hollander) from professional ruin on that same evening, he alters the night's events and misses Mary at the restaurant. It takes all of his talents as a man and a time-traveler to hunt down and charm his dream girl and put his romance back on track.

Mary is worth Tim's magical stalking efforts. And after a few complications of the comical or sentimental variety to liven up the proceedings, Mary and Tim settle into a happy life as a loving couple and also as young parents. But Tim never tells his bride about his miraculous time-tweaking talents, even as he uses them to manipulate their life together. And you have to ask yourself, is that any way to maintain an honest relationship?

Oh, Domhnall Gleeson is such an open, sweet-faced, and amiable actor that he has you forgetting the slightly skeevy aspects of his character's time-management tactics. And Richard Curtis is careful to show how well-intentioned Tim's little machinations are. If Tim pops out for an orgy while his wife is large with child, the audience never sees it. But we do see the unfair advantage he has in life in general and most especially in his relationship with his true love. And that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste for any viewer with an ethical streak.

Still, if Rachel McAdams's Mary is understandably clueless about certain aspects of her husband's life, at least she is a likeable and believable woman. You would expect no less from Richard Curtis, who generally expresses wonderful compassion and affection for his slightly eccentric characters. In fact, one of the ways in which the filmmaker defuses the questionable gender politics of his primary love relationship is by widening the focus of his movie. About Time isn't just about Tim and Mary and what happens to them, it is also about all of their family and friends. Although not quite as complex and overlapping as the myriad storylines in Love Actually, this movie still invites us to care about a great many characters and their lives (with or without time travel). As Curtis told Variety, "[t]here is a romantic comedy in there somewhere, but it stops halfway through."

If you want madcap hijinks in your time-travel rom-com, then it turns out that About Time is not the movie for you. Like early Curtis, it contains nuptials but also a funeral. And, in the end, it tends to get a bit schmaltzy as Tim shares with the audience his realization that it is less useful to go back and relive each day until you perfect it than it is to fully appreciate each moment as you live it the first time.

That's easy for a character like Tim to say, however. He has the luxury of choosing. But what would Mary choose, if she had the chance? We'll never know. But let's hope that when Rachel McAdams stars in a time-travel movie next, she's the one who gets to move through time!

Interestingly, at the same time About Time was playing in theaters, another comedy about time travel and a budding love relationship was playing. But this family animated feature has little in common with Richard Curtis's far superior live-action movie, except for the fact that it's the boys who do the time-traveling and the girl who stays home.

The most memorable thing about the computer-animated cartoon, Free Birds, is how flat-footed and misguided it seems. Directed by Jimmy Hayward, and written by Hayward and Scott Mosier (from a story by David I. Stern and John J. Strauss), it tells the tale of a painfully perceptive free-range turkey named Reggie (Owen Wilson) who ends up teamed with a blustering, addle-brained factory-farm turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson). The two travel back in time in an egg-shaped time machine named S.T.E.V.E (George Takei) to Colonial times to keep turkey off the table at the first Thanksgiving feast and thereby prevent the centuries-long autumnal genocide of turkeydom.

While in the Plymouth colony, the new buddies encounter the fowl-killing threat in the form of a selfish and gluttonous Governor Bradford (Dan Fogler) and his thoroughly evil henchman, Myles Standish (Colm Meaney). Initially to survive, and then to strategize their resistance, the two modern turkeys join forces with a tribe of seventeenth-century wild turkeys led by a wise chief, Broadbeak (Keith David). His brave and beauteous daughter, Jenny (Amy Poehler), provides a love interest for the enamored Reggie.

To count the ways in which Free Birds is as messy as an uncleaned turkey cage would be exhausting. But a few missteps are easy to point out. Those interested in the Colonial history of the white Puritans would find the portrayal of Bradford, Standish, and the rest of the dim-witted colonials more than a little distasteful. And as for the wild turkeys of Plymouth? They are depicted as wearing feather headdresses and war paint like some bad stereotype of Plains Indians from a John Ford Western. (That is to say, they aren't even anything like the coastal New England Native tribes.) You would think, in this day of righteous outrage over branding sports teams with mascots like Redskins and Indians, equating Native people to savage animals like Panthers and Bears, that the filmmakers would have thought twice about equating wild turkeys with North American Indians. But, no.

The person most likely to be outraged by Free Birds is Michelle Obama, however. For, in the end, the movie solves the turkey-slaughter question by making pizza the traditional holiday feast fare. So much for the First Lady's efforts to promote healthy eating options to youngsters.

Needless to say, there is no reason why an animated kiddie film needs to push all the politically correct buttons of historical accuracy or culturally sensitive expression. Much can be overlooked if such a movie is rollicking good fun. But Free Birds isn't even that. That's right, I'm going to say it. It's a turkey—and not one of the time-traveling freedom-fighter species, either.

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