A wild, woolly idea comes unbuttoned

'I'm a time traveler. I come from the future. And I don't get to bring my clothes."

That about explains everything, doesn't it?

A kooky, head-spinning romantic mess, The Time Traveler's Wife stars Eric Bana as the naked time traveler and Rachel McAdams as the bright-eyed Chicagoan who has known this guy since she was a little girl.

Well, she was a little girl. He was already a grown-up, time-traveling dude - naked and hiding in the bushes. Didn't Clare's parents tell her not to talk to weirdos lurking in the underbrush?

A syrupy and extraordinarily ridiculous adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling novel, The Time Traveler's Wife is about the timelessness of true love, about the intersection of fate and chance, and about how it's possible to be in two places at once, or to be in the same place twice, and still not be able to show up for dinner.

Acting is all about finding the "truth" in a character and a situation, and delivering your lines with conviction - becoming the part. I kept thinking about Bana, as his Henry goes caroming around from his young 20s to his mid-30s, meeting up with Clare when she's a wee, wide-eyed lass (played by the charming Brooklynn Proulx) or with McAdams' Clare as she stumbles on Henry one day in the Chicago Public Library. Henry doesn't remember Clare then, but that doesn't stop her from announcing that "I've known you since I was 6 years old" and inviting him to meet at his favorite Thai eatery.

How could the actor keep a straight face? How could she? Isn't there a point on the space-time continuum where mawkish hooey and moonstruck inanity collide to form an implosion of cosmic implausibility?

With a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin, a veteran scribe with a special expertise in the spiritual and paranormal (see Ghost, see Jacob's Ladder), and directed by the German-gone-Hollywood Robert Schwentke, The Time Traveler's Wife is astounding for the plodding, leaden approach it takes to this wild, woolly idea.

Henry has a genetic defect, you see, a "chrono-impairment" that causes him to slip off without warning to other times, other places. He leaves his clothes in a puddle at his feet and arrives wherever in his birthday suit. It's embarrassing for him, sure, but fine for the Australian hunk's fans in the audience. (It's shocking the lengths Henry will go to clothe himself, however, once he's reached his new destination: He smashes the windows of locked cars, he burglarizes offices and shops. Is this any kind of message to send to our chrono-impaired youth?)

I haven't read Niffenegger's book, so I could be wrong about this, but The Time Traveler's Wife might just be a clever bodice-ripping metaphor about boyfriends and husbands who can't commit to a relationship, who will fly off at a moment's notice, dodging responsibilities and appointments with the in-laws.

And parenting? Forget about it. Who needs to hang around raising a kid when you can go running through the trees, as clothesless and carefree as a monkey with a time machine?

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

The Time Traveler's Wife

Directed by Robert Schwentke. With Ron Livingston, Rachel McAdams, Eric Bana, Jane McLean. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 48 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality).