Whenever Kate and Leopold is about Kate and Leopold (Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, respectively), it just about works. Meg Ryan’s trademark brand of neurotic winsomeness is still reasonably effective, and Hugh Jackman more than holds the screen against her as that rarity in American cinema, a truly mature and self-possessed man who could credibly sweep just about any leading lady off her feet.
Whenever Kate and Leopold is about anything other than Kate and Leopold — from its unsalvageable time-travel premise, to the misadventures of Kate’s time-travelling ex-boyfriend Stuart (Liev Schreiber), who brings Leopold and Kate together in the first place, to the day-to-day realities of life in New York either in the present or in 1876 — the movie will leave you knocking your head on the seat in front of you.
Fortunately, it’s mostly about Kate and Leopold.
But the holes are maddening. Right from the outset, we see Leopold in 1876 being addressed as “your Royal Highness” — a style of address at least two notches too grandiose for Leopold, who’s not a “highness” at all, let alone a royal one, but only a British peer. Later, transported from 1876 to the present, Leopold flaunts his knowledge of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “La Bohème” — despite the fact that as of 1876 neither had been written yet. (In that year, “Pirates” was still three years in the future, while “Bohème” was twenty years away.)
But that sort of stuff is small potatoes compared to the glaring sci-fi gaffes. Leopold, we learn, is a budding inventor who will at some point in his future-past become the creator of the modern elevator. So — get this — as soon as Leo leaves his own time and arrives in the present, elevators in the present stop working. That’s right: The elevators themselves are still there, complete with shafts, cables, and presumably engines, but they no longer run, apparently because the relevant physical laws no longer apply since Leopold wasn’t there to discover them. Then, once Leo returns to the past, they start working again.
In a time-travel story with half a brain, the elevators would either (a) be unchanged, on the theory that the elevator always gets invented (if not by Leopold on his return to the past, then by somebody else), or else (b) vanish without a trace, along with all memory that they ever existed (presumably with substantial side-effects in modern architecture). But to say that, because of Leo’s time journey, elevators somehow got built but don’t work is dopey beyond belief.
Wait, it gets worse. (Warning: spoiler ahead.) Toward the movie’s climax, one of the characters is persuaded to make a journey back in time, in part on the basis of a photo taken in the past by Stuart, Kate’s time-traveling ex-boyfriend. What this photo reveals is that the character in question was in fact there in the past. In other words, the photo of the character in the past existed in the present, even though the character in question hadn’t actually decided yet to go back in time; and then, once the photo surfaced, it became clear that the trip to the past had to occur, because it had occurred.
Which is fine — except we’ve already seen with the elevator thing that, until someone actually goes back in time, any effects upon history that they might go on to have in the past are on hold, so to speak. Until Leo actually goes back in time, we have no elevators. But that same “logic” means that Stuart couldn’t have photographed the character in the past when he did, because that character hadn’t gone back yet. In other words, not only is the movie’s time-travel logic senseless, it isn’t even senseless in a consistent way throughout the film.
Are these “guy” gripes? Won’t the film’s target female audience still be able to be charmed by Jackman and vicariously enjoy his courting of Ryan, in spite of the dopey writing?
Well, maybe. Leopold’s genteel courtesies and direct sincerity, although initially unnerving to Kate, are clearly the kind of thing a woman could get used to. Leo stands up whenever Kate leaves or returns to the table, commandeers a Central Park carriage horse to pursue a fleeing thief who’s snatched her purse, and even whips her up a gourmet 19th-century meal (he must be a special duke if he can do his own cooking).
Leopold even has a positive effect on Kate’s slacker brother Charlie (Breckin Meyer), who tries every tactic under the sun short of honesty to impress a girl he likes. “Women respond to sincerity,” Leo instructs Charlie, “and that requires you to occasionally remove your tongue from your cheek.” When Charlie gleefully contrives to leave a message on the girl’s answering machine so that “the ball’s in her court,” Leo chides him: “The idea is to keep the ball in your court. Think of pleasing her, not vexing her.”
Any movie that contrasts nineteeth-century gentility favorably with modern boorishness deserves some credit in my book. And I do appreciate the fact that, when Kate invites Leo to spend the night with her, he does so fully clothed. Kate and Leopold are both nice, likable characters, and it’s easy to root for them to get together.
Yet, likable as they are, Kate and Leo are hampered by the heavy-handed storytelling going on around them. Was it really necessary, for example, for Kate to be subjected to blatant sexual harassment by a superior — and did the superior have to be such a preposterous phony as to claim to speak French and to know “La Bohème” when in fact he didn’t?
Or take a subplot involving a corporate client of Kate’s marketing research firm. The client is looking for a pitchman for their product, but Kate’s research pans all their candidates — until Kate suggests Leopold himself, who of course radiates sincerity and persuasiveness. The problem is, the client’s other candidates are all so revolting that none of them would ever have made it to the market-research stage in the first place. The deck is too heavily stacked in Leo’s favor; it’s like they couldn’t trust us to prefer him if the other pitchmen were even reasonably acceptable.
Or take the scene in which Stuart the time-traveler, finding himself in the hospital with broken bones (hint: remember those malfunctioning elevators?), begins badgering a nurse about needing to be discharged, prompting the nurse to whip out a syringe and stick his IV with it, knocking him out in about five seconds. That’s the kind of scene that can just about ruin a whole movie for my wife, an RN. Nurses don’t administer any kind of meds without a doctor’s orders, and certainly don’t carry around syringes full of sedatives for knocking out annoying patients.
Speaking of Stuart, did it occur to anyone involved to ask what exactly happens to Stuart and the other time travelers on the other end of the time rift? See, the idea is that invisible “cracks in the fabric of time” just spontaneously appear now and then in places where you might not generally bump into them — for example, halfway between the span of the Brooklyn Bridge and the surface of the East River. In other words, if you leap off the Brooklyn Bridge at just the right place and time, you can jump into 1876; and of course in 1876 you can leap off the Brooklyn Bridge (which, unlike “The Pirates of Penzance” and “La Bohème”, actually was there in 1876, though the structure was incomplete) and jump back to the present.
All well and good — but as Doc Brown said in Back to the Future Part III, “You’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally!” In Kate and Leopold, we see characters fall into the time rift, but we never actually see them fall out. Instead, the story always seems to pick up at least a few minutes after their arrival. Since no one is ever seen soaking wet, I have to assume they don’t just keep on falling into the East River. But what’s the alternative? After all, they’re going pretty fast by the time they hit the rift; wherever they land, it’s got to hurt. (At one point Stuart blathers something about the “speed of gravitation” having something to do with getting through the rift, though of course gravitation has no “speed,” only a rate of acceleration that on earth works about to about 32 feet per second per second.) Or are we to believe that the rift somehow deposits you gently back up on the span of the bridge? Perhaps the rift is actually a temporal trampoline that bounces you back up to the height you jumped from?
In the end, if Kate and Leopold doesn’t feel quite whole, that’s because it isn’t. After the film was finished — in fact, after it was screened for critics — it was snatched back to the editing room for emergency surgery to remove a key plot point.
In the earlier version, Stuart was actually the great-great-grandson of Leopold, which explains why Stuart was so interested in Leopold in the first place, and why he was in the past spying on him particularly. (In the subsequently released version of the film, Stuart’s special interest in Leo is unexplained.) Then, of course, it turned out that Leopold became Stuart’s ancestor by marrying Kate.
In other words, the earlier version of the film made Kate turn out to be Stuart’s great-great-grandmother. The catch, of course, was that Kate also had a long-term affair with Stuart himself, a plot point giving the story a weird Oedipal twist that, believe it or not, nobody involved had the brains to catch and root out in production.
Still more bizarre is the fact that, once director James Mangold decided to fix the problem, the solution he chose was not to delete the references to Stuart and Kate’s previous relationship (which would seem to be the more tangential point), but to delete Stuart’s family connection to Leopold and Kate!
As a result, when Stuart now says something like, “If Leopold doesn’t go back to 1876, he doesn’t get married… he doesn’t have children…” it no longer relates to anything else in the film, since the whole subject of Leo’s descendants has been edited out of the story. Perhaps they should have redubbed the line to say, “If Leopold doesn’t go back, we’ll never get our elevators working again.”
Of course, the modern safety elevator was invented before 1876, by Elisha Graves Otis.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.