Lest you hold that old-fashioned romance is dead and gone, here comes a quality movie to flick your earlobe reprovingly and to gainsay that belief. 2001's KATE & LEOPOLD stars Hugh Jackman at his elegant, charming best and Meg Ryan, appealing as ever and very much in her wheelhouse. And while not quite as classic as Meg's SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE or WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... this torn-out-of-time, fish-out-of-water romantic comedy sparkles with humor, appealing characters, and, yup, romance.
Hugh Jackman plays the robust fictional Leopold, third duke of Albany (as opposed to the sickly real-life Leopold, duke of Albany). In Jackman's hands Leopold isn't some fancy pants twit but rather a suave, well-mannered and stand-up guy. It's April 28, 1876 and Leopold has brought his destitute but noble pedigree to New York, his uncle insisting that he find some rich American heiress to marry. We learn early on that Leo is not only an engineering inventor of sorts but that he's also discontented with his royal lot in life.
Meanwhile, in modern-day New York, Kate (Meg Ryan) on the surface is a successful career woman, doing big things in market research. But her personal life is a mess, Kate having just a month ago broken up with her longtime boyfriend Stuart (Liev Schreiber), a scientific louse obsessed solely with time portals. And who happens to be the great-great grandson of Leopold the third duke of Albany. Past and present get Kevin Baconed when Stuart discovers and uses a time portal to the past, just off the Brooklyn Bridge, and returns with an ancestral passenger accidentally in tow.
Kate and Leopold meet, and it's not pretty, what with the jaded, heartbroken Kate finding Leo in her ex-boyfriend's crib. Then there's how Leo is dressed like Sergeant Pepper. But this is Meg Ryan, whose mutant power is to embody the wistful, starry-eyed heroine in these things, so slowly Leo begins to have an effect. To ratchet the suspense, elevators all over the city begin to malfunction, this being a side effect of Leopold not being in his own time. It makes sense once you realize that in his rightful era, Leopold - who, remember, is an engineer - would go on to invent the lift. And if Leo were not to return to his rightful era, well, cue in the scary repercussions...
Hugh Jackman owns this movie even more so than Meg Ryan. Those who've seen him take on the grim superhero part (snikt!) in the X-Men films may be surprised that Hugh can also play a convincing cultured Englishman. He demonstrates this saving grace, a self-deprecating quality, which keeps him from venturing into snobbyland. So you end up liking him even as he imparts lessons in gentlemanly refinement and etiquette to various contemporary New Yorkers. Hugh's romancing of Meg is fun to watch and the most key element in the film, but, let's face it, the love story is a foregone conclusion. So, really, it's Hugh's reactions to his shocking new environs which particularly caught my interest. Would that we all were as graceful under similarly unfamiliar straits (although, yeah, his royal dudeness does lose it a bit when confounded by the enigmatic toaster).
It's fun watching Leopold interacting with New York's fast-lane living denizens. It's a given that the ladies would be bowled over by his charm and couth and accent. But I was surprised at how well Jackman works with Breckin Meyer, who plays Kate's aimless younger brother. It isn't too long before Breckin's character is looking up to Leo and taking his advice in behavior and in how to woo a chick. Breckin also just gave me a mantra for dealing with stubborn bottles of certain condiments: "You shake and shake the ketchup bottle; none will come, and then a lot'll."
Casting aside the trappings of time travel, KATE & LEOPOLD is a throwback, wafting in that whiff of old-fashioned romance. It's just as well that the time portal angle isn't dwelled on for much of the movie (other than in the running Stuart sub-plot), as it probably would've just muddied up the waters. As it is, we get to take in wonderful performances by Meg Ryan, being her sweet self, and Hugh Jackman, terrific as a nobleman out of his time but not out of his element. Hugh's Leopold reminds us that, even in the face of swines and cynicism, there's yet a place for good manners. And that also, back in the day, operas weren't just for sissies.