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'Kate and Leopold': Been there and back

Director James Mangold's take on time travel, not exactly a novel cinematic concept, is thoroughly conventional.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 25, 2001

When it comes to portals in the time/space continuum, it's impossible to beat the trippy tunnel in Being John Malkovich. That passage allowed travel from a Manhattan office building to the side of the New Jersey turnpike, by way of a detour to the titular actor's brain.

In Kate and Leopold, a conventional, rather overworked romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan, the East River serves as a conduit between the present and 1876, and a leap from the Brooklyn Bridge is the only way to fly.

The time traveler is quirky deep thinker Stuart (Liev Schreiber) and, as fate would have it, his trip to the 19th century leads to an encounter with Leopold (Hugh Jackman), also known as the Third Duke of Albany.

Leopold, an aspiring inventor on the verge of boosting his failing fortunes with a marriage to a wealthy, unattractive debutante, spots the out-of-place Stuart shooting photos (the method by which the camera survives the wet trip is just the first plot hole that's never filled) and follows the interloper back to the future.

Time travel isn't exactly a novel cinematic concept, either; we've been there and back this year in at least two forgettable movies, Black Knight and Just Visiting, and a new adaptation of The Time Machine is due early next year. Nor is the love-across-the-centuries concept a new wrinkle. Remember 1979's Time After Time?

Jackman (Swordfish, The X-Files) does an admirable job with another tried-but-true role, the stranger in the strange land. Temporarily decamped at Stuart's apartment, which happens to be just above ex-girlfriend Kate's digs, the man from another century takes an impromptu stroll around Manhattan. Leopold, wearing a Sgt. Pepper-style jacket, is a sight; his own eyes widen at the appearance of hip-hoppers, skateboarders, a group of Hasidic Jews and a wall of videocameras.

Ryan, as harried market-research executive Kate, is reattached to the kind of role she perfected in When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail: the cutesy, needy and maybe a wee bit desperate career woman who's also hopelessly romantic (proof: She references Breakfast at Tiffany's).

Leopold, courtly, dashing, elegant and full of lessons about the art of romance and courtship, is precisely the type Kate could use for a client's butter commercial.

From the title on down, there's little doubt that the harried, overworked businesswoman and the graceful, old school aristocrat will discover that they were made for each other.

In a scene that appeared in the version of the film shown to critics, but since removed, Kate encounters a testy filmmaker (director James Mangold in a cameo) at one of those focus-group movie screenings designed to test audience's reactions long before a film's release. "You people are sucking the life out of American cinema," he complains.

It's played for laughs, but the accusation might fit the process that led to this film, helmed by the man responsible for the far superior Girl, Interrupted and Cop Land. Mangold's latest, written by Steven Rogers (Stepmom), is a derivative piece of fluff that feels as if it might have been constructed by committee.

Will the same kind of serendipity that works for the titular characters apply to the relationship between this movie and audiences? One group of market researchers, no doubt, nervously tweaking the formula all the way up to the last moment, are counting on it.

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Kate and Leopold

  • Grade: C+
  • Director: James Mangold
  • Cast: Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Natasha Lyonne
  • Screenplay: Steven Rogers
  • Rating: PG-13; language
  • Running time: 118 min.

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