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'Kate & Leopold'

'Kate & Leopold' turns into a refreshing romantic fable

Tuesday, December 25, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Behold Hugh Jackman. With "Kate & Leopold," the Australian actor displaces Tom Hanks, Colin Firth, Richard Gere, John Cusack and other romantic comedy leading men.

He is teamed with Meg Ryan in the motion-picture equivalent of a palate cleanser. It's like a fruit sorbet served between heavy courses. In this case, the weighty meals are movies about a schizophrenic math genius, a boxing legend, a sad-sack widower moving to Newfoundland, and a couple rocked by grief and anger.

 
 
"Kate & Leopold"

Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language

Starring: Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman

Director: James Mangold

Critic's call:

   
 

"Kate & Leopold" is light, bright and fun. It may leave you with a multitude of "Yes, but what about. ..." nagging questions, but it also will temporarily lift your mood. It's no "Sleepless in Seattle," but it's also no "Someone Like You," a far less satisfying romantic comedy with Jackman and Ashley Judd.

Here, Jackman is Leopold, the third duke of Albany, who is a dashing but impoverished bachelor living with his uncle in New York City in 1876. His only option is to marry well and while there are fluttering, flirtatious ladies galore on his dance card, there are none to his liking. Or loving.

"Marriage is a promise of eternal love. As a man of honor, I cannot promise eternally what I have never felt momentarily," he declares.

Through a crack in the fabric of time and a modern-day scientist named Stuart (Liev Schreiber), Leopold is transported to today's New York City. That is where Stuart lives in the apartment above his ex-girlfriend, Kate McKay (Ryan), a cynical, by-the-numbers market researcher. She asks for "the truth, straight up -- no chaser."

Of course after a period of annoyance and then amusement, Kate and Leopold fall in love. But they have bigger problems than whether Tater Tots constitute a proper element of a meal.

Ryan, happily, is not doing another warm and twinkly turn as in "Sleepless" and "You've Got Mail." Sporting a choppy hairstyle and the sort of business attire (trousers, jackets, blouses) that a young Katharine Hepburn might have worn, Ryan shuns all the romantic skirts, scarves, long curly hair and other accouterments of parts past. Kate works in a modern office with frosted glass walls, and she's got a bit of an edge. She's no Courtney Love, but it's a refreshing change.

Jackman cuts a fine figure in his 1876 party attire and physically commands the screen. This romantic fable allows him to flex muscles and charms not evident in "X-Men" or "Swordfish."

"Kate & Leopold" celebrates all things good: manners, chivalry, courtship, finely prepared food, carefully chosen flowers, integrity. It has some holes big enough to rival that spinning "Time Tunnel" from the '60s TV series, but it keeps you distracted and boasts a good supporting cast. Chief among them: Breckin Meyer as Kate's brother, Natasha Lyonne as her assistant and "West Wing" regular Bradley Whitford as her boss.

In the minus column, I never could buy Kate and Stuart as a couple, Leopold isn't as curious as a 19th-century visitor should be, and Kate never asks many questions about the role of women in Leopold's society. But director James Mangold, here departing from his work in "Girl, Interrupted" and "Cop Land," guides us to the brink and waits for us to leap.

After an early sneak preview, the movie was tweaked and tinkered with, to keep the ending more of a secret. That was smart, although you probably will know where this is headed. And you'll be happy to ride along.

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