A complete and almost wholly successful change of pace for director-co-writer James Mangold and the film that might finally transport Hugh Jackman (Swordfish) to the ranks of full-fledged movie star, Kate and Leopold provides the third truly worthy romantic comedy to come out this year. And if it’s not quite in the same league as Bridget Jones’s Diary, it’s at least neck-and-neck with Serendipity in terms of charm, laughs and onscreen chemistry between the leads. With its time-travel plotline that transports the 19th-century Leopold to the 21st century (thanks to Meg Ryan’s slightly addled dreamer of an ex-boyfriend finding “portals” in the fabric of time), it’s considerably more fanciful than the other contenders. This hardly matters, though, except to the degree that it makes the film slightly more plot-heavy, necessitating a running time of just over two hours. That’s a rather hefty chunk of screen time in which to maintain the kind of lightness essential to this sort of romantic whimsy, and, in all honesty, Kate and Leopold doesn’t entirely pull it off. The movie’s never dull, but it’s hard not to feel that there’s something close to a masterpiece of the romantic-comedy form here that’s just slightly weighed down by its size. Looked at objectively, though, it’s impossible to see how the film could be effectively pruned and contain the key elements of its story in an even vaguely believable manner. Even at this length, Mangold has resorted to some shorthand, some of which works fairly well and some of which doesn’t. Making the unwitting time-traveling Leopold an inventor generally works to cover the way in which this visitor from 1876 adapts so readily to the modern world, since a less scientific mind would likely be stumped by double-edged disposable razors, automobiles and electric toasters. Less successful are certain structural problems: One central character disappears from the film for so long that it’s possible to forget about him. Similarly hard to overlook is the fact that it’s beyond improbable that a man from 1876 knows all about Puccini’s La Boheme, an opera from 1896, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, from 1880. But if the viewer can put all this aside and accept this fanciful fairy story on its own merits and its own terms, the experience is both pleasant and rewarding. Apart from the possible breakthrough performance from Hugh Jackman and an unusually well-defined one from Meg Ryan (whose well-scrubbed perkiness usually sets my teeth on edge well before the 90-minute mark in a movie), there’s nothing terribly new here. The fish-out-of-water material is certainly not new, nor is the concept of a woman longing for the type of chivalrous, well-mannered man supposedly more likely to have been found several generations back than in her own time. What works about all this is a combination of sincerity and a few fresh spins — not the least of which lies in the savvy manner in which the screenplay manages to put its romantic duo on unusually even footing. It’s true that Kate can’t find her “Mr. Right” in modern times, but it’s equally true that Leopold has had no better luck in finding “Miss Right” in 1876. Moreover, Leopold doesn’t come to our era and prove that his old-fashioned ways were invariably better than our own — a standard and tedious notion. It turns out that Leopold himself is capable of learning some worthwhile things from the 21st century, too. In the end, though, Kate and Leopold succeeds because it fulfills our expectations of romance not as it usually is, but as we might like it to be — and it does so with wit, charm and intelligence.
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