Selling pond scum
The Kate & Leopold that opens on Christmas day is a romantic comedy with a slight technical twist: the two people destined to be together come from different centuries. Kate (Meg Ryan) is a 21st-century advertising whiz, expert at spinning products (movies, food items) to compel purchase. Leopold (Hugh Jackman) is the gallant Duke of Albany living in 1876, about to be forced to marry for money. When Leopold is inadvertently whisked to 2001 by Kate’s amateur inventor ex, Stuart (Liev Schrieber, wasted in this role), the fated couple meets. And, after predictable personality clashes (she’s too cynical, he’s too polite), they fall in love.
All this is pretty regular. Equal doses yearning, nose-scrunching, and prat-falling, Kate is the kind of character that Meg Ryan does well and often, and Jackman manages the Victorian “repartee” with appropriate insouciance. But their relationship is considerably less interesting than what went on behind the scenes of Kate & Leopold. Originally scheduled to open in early 2002, the film was moved to 21 December to take advantage of a lack of girl-skewing movies during the holiday season. Then suddenly, after K&L had already screened for most critics, it was pushed back to Xmas, so that director James Mangold might remove a troubling detail, namely, incest.
That this detail apparently escaped everyone involved in the making and early marketing of the film is probably more amusing to the rest of us than to those so involved. Imagine the panic that must have hit Miramax when word started going around, following initial preview screenings (including one that I attended), that Stuart’s original relationship to Leopold—the Duke’s great-great grandson—meant that, before he and Kate broke up, he was having sex with his great-great grandmother. (It’s worth noting that the danger of incest is hardly news in time-travel movies: see, for instance, Marty McFly’s fear of dating his mom in Back to the Future.)
However this dicey business eluded notice, once it was noticed, it obviously could not stand. In the version of Kate & Leopold that most people will see, Stuart is just a guy, not a relative. Now Stuart just happens to pick Leopold out of a crowd in New York City, 1876, a moment Stuart reaches by means of a portal (a “crack in the fabric of time!” he exults) by literally jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Apparently, he can’t go back any further, as there would be no bridge to jump off in order to get back to his own time… but no matter. Stuart is intensely interested in the Bridge, arriving for its christening (adorned with prominent U.S. flag) and giggling at the accompanying pompous, double-entendred speech: “This mighty erection shall stand for all eternity!”
Such jolly intramale joking is extended to the relationship (again, not familial) between Stuart and Leopold. The latter espies the former skulking about, first at the Bridge ceremony and then at a party where Leopold is supposed to announce his engagement to someone (anyone) rich. A chase across the city ensues, involving runs across cobbled streets and rooftops, at the end of which both men leap from the Bridge, both landing in 2001’s yucky river. Having discovered that the Duke has devised preliminary plans for the invention of the elevator, Stuart wisely sees it as imperative that he get the guy back to his proper time period. (Previously, this situation was slightly more dire, as Leopold had to live in the 19th century in order to serve as precursor for Stuart’s existence, but, well, that point’s now moot.) He brings the unconscious Leopold back to his apartment and his big dog Bart, in order to figure a way back—to the past.
Meantime, Kate, who leads focus groups for a firm called CRG Research, will be introduced, but not in the way she was originally introduced. You’ll see her at her apartment (which just happens to be downstairs from Stuart’s) and at her office, feeling uncomfortable around her smarmy boss J.J. (Bradley Whitford), who comes on to her by dangling a promotion before her and admiring that she’s tough-minded and bottom-line-oriented like a man. This is fine, but it’s not so clever as Kate’s first first scene, set in a movie theater during a test screening for a corny romance. She suggests dialogue changes to make the female lead “more likable,” and deftly holds her own when the film’s director (played by Mangold himself) tells her, “My characters are real. Movies can be real, you know. You’re sucking the life out of American cinema!” One might suppose that this scene is now cut because it portrays the situation in which the film has found itself—undergoing last minute cuts after previews.
Now Kate’s immediate problem at work is locating a spokesperson for some fake butter product. Guess what? Leopold is just the guy. At first, she scoffs at Leopold’s Sergeant Pepper-looking outfit and doesn’t believe Stuart’s outrageous explanation about Leopold’s origins. But when Stuart falls down a no-longer working elevator shaft, she’s left in charge of Leopold and warms to his gallantry. He also wins over her actor brother Charlie (Breckin Meyer), who initially admires that Leo is so relentlessly Method, and that he has good ideas about seducing babes. You know, like not acting all self-interested, but actually asking her what she likes to do, quoting a bit of poetry, sending flowers. How novel.
What makes Leopold so appealing to Kate is his sense of chivalry. When a mugger grabs her purse near Central Park, she gives chase, on foot, immediately followed by Leopold, on a horse he’s commandeered from one of those buggies that go around the park. (Poor thing—bad enough that its legs ache from literally pounding pavement all day, now it’s tearing across the park and leaping over park benches.) Kate is impressed. It’s at this point that she recognizes what her assistant Darci (Natasha Lyonne) has been saying (setting up) in the earlier part of the film—that a 19th-century gent, much like, oh, Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, is the ideal mate. He stands when a lady leaves the table and knows what flowers signify what (begonia = danger, water lily = purity of heart, etc.).
Never mind that this guy is clueless when it comes to actual labor or the concept of class; as long as he’s upper, he has no need to know anything more. He’s such a pleasant fellow that. When Kate is in a pickle, he agrees to play the not-butter salesman for her. But when he actually tastes the stuff and discovers that it’s awful, he disparages her for marketing faulty products. For a minute, she stands up to him, and makes the film’s most important point concerning class: she’s worked hard all her life (unlike the privileged duke), and so, she says, “I need a rest, and if I have to sell a little pond scum to get it, then so be it!” Not precisely Rosalind Russell, but reasonably endearing. For about 20 seconds, trouble looms in paradise.
The saddest part of all this is that Leopold, manly and clever as he is (conquering muggers, inventing elevators) appears to be such an anomaly for Kate. Worse, her proclivities—toward work, independence, self-respect—are suddenly turned inside out. This smart, capable, ambitious woman is so unfulfilled by the life she thinks she’s chosen that she finds solace in a man who follows rules of etiquette, not exactly the most independent way of life. Maybe it’s not the entire century that’s gone so wrong. Perhaps it’s just the business she’s in, the harsh, contemptuous mass marketing business. But hey, that’s the very same business that is trying to sell you this particular bill of goods—that someone as obviously bright as Kate would want to give up her life in order to go back in time and be someone’s wife, a wife who can wear gowns and organize teas and whatever else a Duchess did then.
Of course, the film explains Kate’s choice as a function of love, which makes it a non-choice, a matter of fate. But this whimsy of love across the ages is strained, and the finale is foregone (girl needs to get with the gender-role program). The dynamic is part soft romantic comedy and part ‘40s battle-of-the-sexes fare. Mangold has ventured into deeper, more complex versions of these romantic-quest waters before, in Heavy and Copland, and so this one looks especially sappy by comparison. Aspiring to ‘40s sparring, Kate & Leopold—co-written by Mangold and Steven Rogers—only occasionally delivers. Most often, you know exactly where every scene is going long before it gets started.