starring Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer
screenplay by James Mangold and Steven Rogers
directed by James Mangold
by Walter Chaw That the consistently grating Meg Ryan, now milking her second decade as a suspect princess of perk, stars in yet another variation on the When Harry Met Sally, "opposites in love against all odds" scenario augers ill, to be certain. But Kate & Leopold is a decent addition to the beleaguered and overcrowded romantic comedy genre (think Somewhere in Time meets Splash); look for an explanation in James Mangold's steady direction, the clever, deconstructive screenplay he wrote with Steven Rogers, and a rock-steady performance by Hugh Jackman that is confident and unembarrassed.
Ryan's New York executive Kate has recently ended a four-year relationship with a dreamer-scientist named Stuart (Liev Schreiber) who, conveniently, lives in the apartment right above hers. Ever the modern woman, attempting to balance her booming career (in advertising, natch) with her ticking biological clock, Kate complains: "You took the best four years of my life." Unintentionally echoing the audience's confusion as to how old Kate is actually supposed to seem, Stuart's response takes the words right out of our collective mouth: "Those were your best?"
We set the stage, however, in 1876 Manhattan: the christening of the Brooklyn Bridge ("And this mighty erection shall stand for all eternity!"), minuet balls, and an arranged marriage for Leopold, Duke of Albany (Jackman), calculated to best pay off his uncle's royal debts. Leopold resists, his soulful and starry eyes matching Kate's as they both look off into the middle distance, waxing poetic about the love and freedom from responsibility that is the hallmark of every good Harlequin bodice-ripper. Lucky for them, then, that the intrepid Stuart finds a hole in the space-time continuum through which he journeys, intent on visiting his great-great-great grandfather Leopold. Hijinks ensue, a rather uncomfortable realization that Stuart has just spent the last four years making sweet love to his great-great-great grandmother is discreetly ignored, and Leopold finds himself in Woody Allen and Nora Ephron's postcard-perfect, jazz-scored Manhattan--primed to pitch some welcome woo in the direction of the adorably irascible Kate.
When it's revealed that among Kate's many duties is the task of screening test audiences and suggesting manipulative changes to pump up the mass-appeal of stupid movies, Kate & Leopold demonstrates that it knows exactly which breed of malarkey it is. The film pre-emptively challenges bad reviews by presenting commentary like this in regards to a faux film-within-the-film:
"Well, the female protagonist is unlikable, and let's swell the Vanessa Williams song at the climax."
Yet the transparency of this fatigued self-aware, post-modernist Scream tactic barely lessen its effectiveness. For me at least, just an acknowledgement from Kate & Leopold that it was treading the same beaten path as literally dozens of nearly identical films allowed me to overlook its derivativeness and judge the film independent of its confessed predictability.
Kate & Leopold laudably refrains from interrupting its central theme (there are no secondary pairs to lend comic relief or ironic counterpoint--there is little filler). Neither does it dwell on the central gimmick to the point where we begin to worry syllogistic riddles about the paradoxes of time travel. And when a character such as Schreiber's (or Kate's spastic brother, played by Breckin Meyer) begins to outwear his welcome, Kate & Leopold seems to know that it's time to cut back to its titular couple. It's a stupid film but not a malicious one, and you might be surprised to find as the screen fades to a rapturous black that Kate & Leopold's sugary aftertaste is agreeably smooth and nothing like the bitter flavour churning in the wake of its artificial sweetener brothers. Originally published: December 21, 2001.