Nineteenth century chivalry disarms 21st century cynicism in "Kate & Leopold," a time-travel romantic comedy whose best elements -- Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman -- overcome distracting plot holes, loose threads and assorted contrivances to make for a mostly charming and diverting tale.

Nineteenth century chivalry disarms 21st century cynicism in “Kate & Leopold,” a time-travel romantic comedy whose best elements — Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman — overcome distracting plot holes, loose threads and assorted contrivances to make for a mostly charming and diverting tale. Pic is sure to benefit from its star power, and perhaps more importantly, its timing, as the only date movie of the holiday season. A welcome alternative to three-hour fantasy epics and weighty biopics, this lightly enjoyable Miramax release should garner healthy returns, especially among women, with even heftier residuals awaiting in the homevideo market.

For his first foray into comedy, helmer James Mangold (“Copland,” “Girl, Interrupted”) found himself a dream cast. Ryan is back doing what she does best (after “Proof of Life” and “Hanging Up,”) and the strapping Aussie Jackman, who has shown promise even in mediocre films (“Someone Like You,” “Swordfish”), finally gets a role worthy of his talent.

Story opens in 1876 New York, where Leopold (Jackman), an English duke and techno buff more enthralled with his own invention — an elevator prototype — than with the royal responsibility of finding a spouse, has joined the crowd for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Leopold’s dilatory behavior irritates his uncle (Paxton Whitehead), who, at his nephew’s subsequent 30th birthday party, demands Leopold announce his choice of a wife by the end of the night. During the party, however, Leopold spies a mysterious interloper (Liev Schreiber), whom he chases outside, across the bridge, and through an invisible portal that propels both men into the 21st century.

In contemporary Manhattan, market researcher Kate McKay (Ryan) is busy wrapping up a test screening. Buttressed by her able assistant, Darci (Natasha Lyonne), Kate fends off the angry complaints of the film’s director (Mangold) who insists her methods are “sucking the life out of American cinema.” It’s a nicely self-reflexive moment, as Mangold, who co-wrote with Steven Rogers, obviously has thoughts about the test screening process, a game at which Miramax, the present distrib, has proved especially adept.

Returning home, Kate hears suspicious noises from the apartment above, where her ex-b.f., Stuart (Schreiber), is lodging Leopold. Kate, naturally, is incredulous when Stuart explains the duke is really his great-great-grandfather, the inventor of the elevator. Still clad in his royal regalia, the stranger, she notes, looks like a refugee from the Sergeant Pepper album.

Stuart has determined the portal will open again in a week’s time and that Leo must return to his own era; otherwise the course of history (including Stuart’s own existence) could be threatened. Already things have started to go awry: In a freak occurrence the movie mentions but practically abandons as a plot point, elevators everywhere have ceased working.

Stuart himself is badly injured after tumbling down an elevator shaft, landing in the hospital for several days, and his absence provides the opportunity for Kate and Leopold to get acquainted. Leopold is drawn to Kate’s assertive nature, so unlike anything he’s seen in Victorian England. And Kate, burned one too many times by insensitive cads, finds herself drawn to Leopold’s gentlemanly charm and courteous demeanor.

Still, a gentleman knows when to defend his turf, and when Leopold sees his beloved’s smarmy boss (Bradley Whitford) trying to mix in a night at the opera with a chance at a promotion, Leo comes to her aid, revealing his rival’s inadequacies by reciting lyrics from Puccini’s “La Boheme.” It’s a nice conceit, but for a movie that lists an etiquette consultant and a time-travel adviser among its credits, it’s a wonder no one thought to consult an encyclopedia: “Boheme” was first performed in 1896, 20 years too late. Ditto another sloppy bit that involves Leo singing “The Pirates of Penzance;” the operetta wasn’t written until 1879.

Such details aren’t likely to be noticed, as Jackman’s charm is so irresistible he could peddle snow in the Himalayas. Mangold and Rogers are less interested in exploring a fish-out-of-water scenario than in accelerating the romance between the principals. So there are a number of instances when Leo seems to have adapted a trifle too easily to modern life.

But this is, after all, a romantic fantasy.

Appropriately, Mark Friedberg’s production design lends a softness and a retro neighborly charm to the Gotham locales; it’s the kind of place where people leave their apartments unlocked without worry — one of many plot points that will frustrate anyone who cannot willingly suspend disbelief.

Lenser Stuart Dryburgh has lit Jackman to play up his manly charisma and Ryan for maximum radiance, though this is a more brittle part than her comedies usually afford. And while costumer Donna Zakowska’s elaborate waistcoat is just right for Leopold, her unflattering outfits for Kate strive too hard to achieve a masculine silhouette.

The supporting cast boasts many fine actors (Lyonne, Philip Bosco, Spalding Gray) whose parts amount to almost nothing. One who is thankfully seen at greater length is Breckin Meyer, playing Kate’s brother, Charlie; his delivery and comic timing are terrific.

Kate & Leopold

Production

A Miramax Films release of a Konrad Pictures production. Produced by Cathy Konrad. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster, Kerry Orent. Co-producer, Christopher Goode. Directed by James Mangold. Screenplay, Mangold, Steven Rogers, story by Rogers.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Stuart Dryburgh; editor, David Brenner; music, Rolfe Kent; production designer, Mark Friedberg; art director, Jess Gonchor; set decorator, Stephanie Carroll; costume designer, Donna Zakowska; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Mathew Price; assistant director, Nick Mastandrea; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, L.A., Dec. 9, 2001. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Kate McKay - Meg Ryan
Leopold - Hugh Jackman
Stuart Bessler - Liev Schreiber
Charlie McKay - Breckin Meyer
Darci - Natasha Lyonne
J.J. Camden - Bradley Whitford
Uncle Millard - Paxton Whitehead
Dr. Geisler - Spalding Gray
Otis - Philip Bosco

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