July 25, 2013

Movie Review: Kate & Leopold

Movie Review: Kate & Leopold

This was released on Christmas Day…I’d have preferred the lump of coal.

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Kate & Leopold
Starring Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Natasha Lyonne
Director: James Mangold
Writer: James Mangold, Steven Rogers
Studio: Miramax Films
Release Date: December 25, 2001

Today The Wolverine opens in US theaters.  Excited for this next film in the X-Men saga I watched Kate & Leopold, a 2001 romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman.

No, I wasn’t just going to watch any Jackman film; Kate & Leopold is directed by James Mangold, and based off their working relationship in this film Jackman tapped Mangold to direct The Wolverine when first choice Darren Aronofsky dropped out.  Jackman has said in interviews this decision was based largely off their relationship founded during Kate & Leopold.

While Mangold has done many other respected films, including award-winning Walk the Line, Girl, Interrupted and 3:10 to Yuma, plus the Tom Cruise action/comedy Knight and Day, I wanted to see this Jackman-Mangold time-travel rom-com collaboration to set my expectations for The Wolverine.  Would I see something in Kate & Leopold, a spark of creativity, a visual flare, that would show Mangold a good fit for a high-octane comic book film?  Would Jackman’s performance be one no other director had been able to get from the actor?  Would I see anything in this film to indicate through style or sensibility that Mangold was the man to give fans, as the TV ads state, “the Wolverine film you’ve been waiting for”?

Having now seen Kate & Leopold I certainly hope not.

Jackman stars as Leopold, a 19th century Duke and future inventor of the elevator (which, the credits admit, is not historically accurate).  With his family fortune dwindling Leopold is forced to take a wealthy wife, though Leopold has never loved anyone.  But at the party where his engagement will be announced Leopold spots Stuart (Liev Screiber)–a strange, shifty man carrying a miniature camera.

Stuart is actually Leopold’s great-great-grandson from present day New York City.  Through the laziest time travel explanation ever (he just jumped off a bridge), Stuart came back in time to see his ancestor.  But Leopold gives chase and both he and Stuart arrive in 21st Century Manhattan.  There, Leopold meets Stuart’s ex-girlfriend Kate (Ryan), a cynical, bitter, career-minded woman, working in market research.  Eventually Kate’s resistance melts and she falls in love with the Duke, but Leopold must return to his own time lest a paradox remove all elevators from modern life.

From the trailers and description, I expected Kate & Leopold to be a version of Back to the Future.  Jackman plays a man unfamiliar with modern technology and customs, so the obvious plot would be that his focus is to return home while also falling in love.  Plus the ancient-man-in-modern-times concept has many opportunities for hilarity, as seen in Jean Renot’s The Visitors.

But under Mangold’s direction Kate & Leopold eschew most all attempts at comedy or realism.  The film is a banal romantic fantasy tailored for aging, lonely women.  As Leopold, Jackman is polite, charming, and handsome.  More, his every attention is given only to Kate–he has no job, no friends, nothing else to occupy his time; Kate is the center of his world.  He makes her breakfast in the morning, does her dishes in the evening, and stands up when a lady leaves the table.  Leopold doesn’t even seem to want to return to his own time, he’s happy to just stay in the future, living in Stuart’s apartment and romancing Kate.

In Ryan’s introductory scene she is doing market research on a rote rom-com which isn’t working.  The researchers think the female lead is unlikeable, and the film’s director exclaims that marketers are sucking the soul from the art of film.   That is certainly true of Kate & Leopold.  The entire film is so obvious it is set to play to a test audience of the least sophisticated of Americans.  An audience with expectations set so low as to simply find comfort in the familiar.

And a romantic comedy with Meg Ryan as the female lead is nothing if not familiar.  Here, in the waning years of her popularity, her face taut and lips inflated by the work of a plastic surgeon, Ryan is breaking no new ground.  Her character Kate observes a neighbor who plays the soundtrack for Breakfast at Tiffany’s every night, and the same can be said for much of Ryan’s career, stuck in an endless loop of interchangeable roles as a romantic lead.  Certainly she does nothing here to broaden the range of her characters.

I am a fan of escapist fantasy, but Kate & Leopold is too obvious in its pandering, and painful to watch in that it ignores its own ironies.  Kate broke up with Stuart because he was an unemployed dreamer, yet she falls in love with his ancestor who is just a more romantic version of that same persona.  More, as Kate eventually travels back in time to marry Leopold, the film glosses over the icky fact that for four years Kate was sleeping with Stuart, her great-great-grandson!

The film does have several chase scenes, such as Leopold running down a mugger in Central Park and Kate having to rush to travel back in time before the portal closes.  Under Mangold’s direction these scenes have no spark to them.  They feel obligatory, not exciting.  Kate and Leopold stole the plot from Back to the Future’s climax, but got none of its excitement.

This film is not recommended for any but the loneliest of spinsters who want to dream of finding love before their lady parts dry up.

And Kate and Leopold has given me a feeling of trepidation as I prepare to see The Wolverine.  There is no doubt Jackman made friends while hanging out on sets leftover from Gangs of New York–Schreiber would play his “brother” Sabertooth in the first Wolverine film; Mangold would direct the second.  But in a film this unoriginal I see nothing that makes me think Mangold is a fit for The Wolverine.

But we will find out!  You can hear Now Playing’s review of The Wolverine on August 13th at NowPlayingPodcast.com

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