My recent infatuation obsession with the television show Outlander prompted me to revisit that underappreciated film genre – the time travel romance. First on the list is 2001’s Kate and Leopold, a time capsule of a movie when Meg Ryan was romcom queen, Hugh Jackman’s biceps were normal-person-sized, and executives were still scribbling on Palm Pilots. It surprised me then that the film holds up – as a comedy more than a romance, and the cast should get most of the credit. You really can’t pull off this kind of story without them since the very idea of time travel is so fundamentally absurd. But I suppose you could say the same about true love. Both need total commitment from the storytellers to nudge the film from the realms of fantasy into some semblance of reality, even if it’s just emotional.
The opening sequence establishes the degree of this fanciful conceit. We meet Stuart (a charmingly neurotic Liev Schreiber), a 21st century scientist who has sneaked into the late 1800s to spy on Leopold, Duke of Albany (Jackman). When he tries to return to the present day by jumping off the yet unfinished Brooklyn Bridge into a whirly time portal, the good duke gets pulled in too. The mechanics of time travel don’t really figure into the story because it isn’t so much the act or (il)logical effects of it as it is the travelers themselves that center the narrative.
Very quickly, chaos abounds. Stuart has no choice but to bring Leopold back to his apartment, attracting the attention of his ex-girlfriend, Kate (Ryan), who lives directly below. Since the portal won’t open for another week, they all must try to coexist in relative harmony. Leopold, however, doesn’t know how to navigate these modern times; he’s puzzled by the ringing telephone and appalled by the need to clean up after your dog. These jokes run pretty standard, but some stand out due to their sheer pluck. The sight of a young Hugh Jackman looking like an “escapee from a Renaissance fair” bang on about the madness of a toaster that requires one and a half pushes just makes me laugh.
It’s not technology that has Leopold most confused, and at odds with others, though but the absence of manners and common decency. How degenerate modern society has become. Kate works as an ad executive peddling products she knows are inferior, and this lack of integrity offends Leopold to the core. No longer just a time tourist, he instead morphs into a paragon a 19th century gentleman. At first, Kate and her actor brother Charlie (a very lovable Breckin Meyer) find the visitor’s formality varyingly odd and irritating. But Charlie softens when Leopold dispenses some sound dating advice, and Kate sheds her tough career woman shell when she realizes that men exist in this world who will literally ride in on a white horse to rescue you.
This is where the fantasy takes over. If you buy into the idea that 19th century men are morally superior, or that we all need better manners, then this movie just works and you can enjoy the happily ever after. The alternatives to Leopold simply aren’t appealing. Between the scatter-brained Stuart, irresponsible Charlie, and Kate’s skeevy boss, J. J. (a slimy Bradley Whitford), you’d be stupid not to choose the guy with brocade trim coat and tight white pants. As a 21st century woman, however, I need more than Hugh Jackman to convince me that looking backwards to model appropriate gender relations is a good idea, since when has this ever been the case? Rooftop dinners and handwritten apologies are fine, but pointing out that “a lady in trousers isn’t dangerous, merely plain” will not win me over. There’s a degree of dishonesty to the idea that Kate needs saving – from her sad love life, her exploitative job, her lecherous boss – and that Leopold is the one to do it because men were oh so chivalrous back in the day. Maybe, but maybe not.
Prod: Kathy Conrad
Dir: James Mangold
Writer: Steven Rogers, James Mangold
Cast: Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Bradley Whitford, Natasha Lyonne, Paxton Whitehead, Philip Bosco, Kristen Schaal, Viola Davis
Time: 123 min
Country: United States