Kate & Leopold (review)

Time Out of Mind

Jack Finney fans rejoice! No, not really! (Sorry.) If, like me, you’ve been waiting for Time and Again, his time-traveling romantic fantasy novel, to show up on the big screen, you will be pissed as hell that Kate & Leopold appears to have ripped him off, only sort of in reverse, stripping the romance and the fantasy of any potency in the process. You’ll be pissed because when this sorry piece of would-be fluff goes over like a lead balloon at the box office — its Christmas Day opening was pathetic — it will effectively quash any chance Time and Again ever had of coming to a multiplex near you within our lifetimes. “Look,” Hollywood honchos will say, pointing to their spreadsheets, “time-travel romances don’t sell.”

Well, of course they don’t. Not when they’re better used as insomnia aids than anything else.
Finney had a 20th-century guy travel back to 19th-century New York and fall in love with a lass from the past. James Mangold — who wrote Kate & Leopold with Steven Rogers (who is also responsible for the execrable Stepmom) and directs it with a seriousness that made his Cop Land so intense and this film so stultifying — has a 19th-century gentleman coming forward to the 21st century and falling in love with a modern woman. That’s where the similarities end, but still, Finney fans should fume.

In this corner, hailing from 1876 England by way of New York: Leopold, the third Duke of Albany (Hugh Jackman: Someone Like You, Swordfish, who is scrumptious, but he’s gotta be getting tired of being the only good thing in any given movie). Leopold is old money with no money, a destitute aristocrat whose uncle is begging him to marry a nouveau-riche American woman — any one will do. But he’s far more interested in “progress and invention” and in creating the elevator, apparently blissfully unaware that Elisha Otis had devised the technology nearly a quarter century earlier and that the thing had been in public use for nearly 20 years. That might have been funny if Mangold and Rogers hadn’t also been blissfully unaware of this fact — imagine the comic possibilities of, for instance, a man in 1950 whose life’s dream is to invent the automobile. But no: there is no comedy in this elevator business.

In this corner, hailing from 2001 New York, is marketing executive Kate McKay (Meg Ryan: You’ve Got Mail, City of Angels, who looks hard and tortured, like she’s getting as tired of playing the same part as we are of seeing her play it). Kate can’t stand the sappy romantic films and inedible diet margarine she focus-groups and yet also has no tolerance for those can’t stand the focus-grouping of our culture. She “skews male,” according to her boss, which is supposed to make her miserable and unlikable, but what really makes her miserable and unlikable is that she makes herself miserable and unlikable: when she isn’t rude and rather crass, she’s just plain boring. If she has any interests outside of bitching about her job and the ex-boyfriend she tolerated for too long — Stuart (Liev Schreiber: Scream 3, The Hurricane), who, conveniently for her self-martyrdom, lives directly above her in the least-secure apartment building in Manhattan, allowing for more to- and- fro- ing than unhappy exes should endure — none are evident. And yet with a flip line from Kate like “I’m not the protagonist in a major motion picture,” Mangold and Rogers think they can get away with foisting this unhappy and unpleasant woman on us.

Oh, these two sound positively made for each other, don’t they? Contrivance via Stuart, an inventor and, obviously, a nuclear genius who discovers a portal in time, allows Kate and Leopold to come together. She thinks he’s insane and is only ever pissed at him for being insane. He holds “career women” in disdain, and she serves him Tater Tots, which are an abomination upon the face of the Earth to me, never mind to a man who thinks every meal should be an event, with caviar flown in from the Continent on the wings of doves and stuff. Love can conquer much, but not Tater Tots.

Need I say they fall in love? Within a matter of days? She should be worse, to his eyes, than the boorish women his uncle wants him to marry. He should be worse, to her eyes, than the unconventional Stuart she can’t abide. And the abysmal lack of chemistry between Ryan and Jackman is embarrassing: they share the least romantic screen kiss I’ve ever seen. You can practically see them thinking, “Oh, well, it’s a paycheck.”

What a waste of a premise! A forward-thinking 19th-century aristocrat amid the crassness and inventiveness of turn-of-the-millennium New York! Would he be simultaneously repelled and fascinated? We’ll never know, because Leopold spends most of his time in Stuart’s apartment, singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes for Stuart’s kid neighbor and learning how to make toast. A smart, independent woman faced with an attractive man so smugly sure of his superiority? Would she be simultaneously repelled and fascinated? We’ll never know, because Mangold and Rogers defang any un-P.C. masculinity out of him — not only must he learn how to use the dishwasher, they make sure to have someone tell him to be certain Kate sees him turn the damn thing on, so she’ll know he’s a good little boy who’s “helping.” She probably has him run out for tampons for her, but thank goodness that scene was cut.

Dammit, but I hated this movie.

The film is filled with logical and temporal inconsistencies: the Brooklyn Bridge is not within walking distance of Madison Avenue; there’s no need to rush to a time portal that’ll close soon if in another week it will open again onto the same exact moment in the past. And that’s on top of the ones that were edited out of the film at the very, very last minute, after it had already been screened for critics — if the film is even less palatable than the impression I’ve given, it’s because I saw a different version of the film.

But at least the one you’re seeing isn’t quite the seemingly interminable 2-plus hours of the one I saw. One of the ways Kate describes her job is thus: “We make boring movies shorter.” So score one for marketing types, I guess.

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