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Before there was Logan there was… the frothy, time-traveling rom-com Kate & Leopold?

Hugh Jackman first teamed up with director James Mangold as an aristocratic fish-out-of-water falling for Meg Ryan
Screenshot: Kate & Leopold
Screenshot: Kate & Leopold
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse
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When Romance Met Comedy

With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

Would you give up the right to vote in order to marry Hugh Jackman? That’s essentially the question at the heart of Kate & Leopold, a 2001 time travel rom-com about a sensitive 19th-century duke (Jackman) and the cynical modern day New Yorker (Meg Ryan) who winds up falling for him after he tumbles through a crack in time. And it’s a testament to just how good Hugh Jackman is in this movie that even the most ardent feminist might need a second to consider their options. By the time Ryan’s Kate McKay has made the impulsive choice to follow her out-of-time beau back to 1876, you kind of get it. Who needs airplanes, tampons, and access to penicillin when you can have Jackman take you in his arms and waltz you around a ballroom?

Yet the weirdest thing about Kate & Leopold isn’t anything that happens in its wacky time travel plot, which at one point involves Liev Schreiber falling several stories down an empty elevator shaft. It’s the fact that this gauzy romantic comedy was written and directed by James Mangold, who would later re-team with Jackman to make Logan, one of the bleakest, most critically respected superhero films of all time.

At first glance, there’s very little about Kate & Leopold that seems like a natural fit for Mangold’s filmmaking interests, which usually lean toward grizzled dad movies like 3:10 To Yuma, Walk The Line, and Ford V Ferrari. In fact, Mangold was specifically drawn to the idea of helming an escapist studio rom-com because he wanted a change of pace after bursting onto the scene with heavier dramas like Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted. But once you look past the waistcoats and candlelit rooftop dinners, you can actually start to see Mangold’s touch all over this frothy romance.

For one thing, Kate & Leopold is absolutely obsessed with men and their relationships to one another, a go-to subject matter for Mangold. The ensemble is rounded out with major roles for Kate’s scatterbrained ex-boyfriend Stuart (Schreiber), who figures out how to time travel and inadvertently brings Leopold back to the present; her skeevy boss J.J. (Bradley Whitford), who dangles a promotion and a potential romantic relationship as if they’re one and the same; and her boyish brother Charlie (Breckin Meyer), a struggling actor with a floundering love life. Weirdly enough, Mangold’s take on The Wolverine has more well-rounded female characters than this romantic comedy where the female lead has top billing in the title. There are whole stretches of the movie that leave Kate behind entirely to focus on Leopold and Charlie’s burgeoning friendship, as the old-fashioned duke teaches his modern-day counterpart some lessons in how to successfully court a woman.

While other time travel rom-coms have used their central conceits as metaphors for everything from marriage to maturation, Mangold is interested in shifting ideals of masculinity. The initial fish-out-of-water comedy of Leopold’s arrival in modern-day New York gives way to a study in contrasts between the immature, emotionally stunted men of the present and the noble confidence of a man from the past—whose chivalry isn’t a means to an end, but a genuine code for trying to be a better, more caring person. Kate & Leopold isn’t interested in manhood as it relates to machismo swagger or bro-y gross-out humor, but as it relates to ideals of integrity, honesty, respect, and, most unexpectedly of all, emotional openness. Leopold’s biggest piece of advice to Charlie is that he shouldn’t awkwardly half-flirt with his crush while trying to suss out her interests. “Make your intentions known,” Leopold advises. “Think of pleasing her, not vexing her.”

Of course, it’s wildly ahistorical to think that the person best-suited to teach us how to live sensitive, respectful 21st-century lives is an aristocratic man from the 1800s—even if Leopold is supposed to be a forward-thinking inventor who goes on to patent the elevator. In a lot of ways, it probably would’ve made more sense for Kate & Leopold to be a Thor-style comedy where the displaced outsider learns his lesson, rather than an Enchanted-style story where they change the world around them for the better.

But as Mangold repeatedly points out in the film’s DVD commentary, Kate & Leopold isn’t actually about contrasting the 1870s with the 2000s so much as paying homage to an Old Hollywood style of romantic filmmaking. Beyond its overt nods to Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Kate & Leopold has a dreamily timeless quality that evokes movies like The Apartment and The Shop Around The Corner.

Mangold encouraged Jackman to play Leopold less as a realistic historical figure and more as a cross between Errol Flynn and Cary Grant. The genius of casting Jackman is that he’s an actor who can be both utterly masculine and gracefully feminine all at the same time. Jackman perfectly embodies the contradictions of Leopold, who has the arrogance of Mr. Darcy mixed with the unending politeness of Clark Kent. He commits to the role just as intensely as he’d committed to his debut as Wolverine the year before.

The film’s laugh-out-loud comedy comes from the fact that Jackman plays Leopold’s befuddlement with modern society completely straight—from his shock at the idea of picking up dog poop to his impassioned rant about the “General of Electric” and his disregard for building an effective toaster. Jackman delivers the comedy with the same intensity as his proclamations of love, leaving Leopold as a man whose unfailing principles are both his biggest strength and his most frustrating flaw. It’s a fantastic performance on every level.

Saddled with a less well-written character, Ryan struggles to hold the screen in the same way. The movie vaguely introduces the idea that Kate is a woman in a man’s world. “You skew male,” J.J. tells her at one point. “You’re like a man. A man who understands women, their desires, their needs. You understand them, but you’re not really one of them.” But it doesn’t really drive home that thread with any specificity beyond the standard “overworked rom-com heroine” archetype—an archetype that isn’t really Ryan’s strong suit anyway.

She’s not bad, exactly, and in fact some of her reaction shots are genuinely lovely. This just isn’t among Ryan’s best work in the rom-com genre, and Kate never fully clicks as a character. Kate & Leopold is too distracted by its men to spend enough time on Kate and the question of what she might lose or gain by following Leopold back into the past. So what stands out most is how inexplicably pointy her hair is.

In contrast, Schreiber, Meyer, and Whitford shine because they’re playing characters who are specific in their quirks and eccentricities. At one point Mangold pauses the plot just to give Stuart an extended monologue about the pain of being called crazy for his open scientific mind. And while it’s a strange diversion for a movie with such nonsensical time travel logic, Schreiber sells the hell out of it. Elsewhere, Jackman and Meyer are so sweet together that there are moments where it feels like the movie should’ve just been a love story between Leopold and Charlie. And in terms of Whitford’s best smarmy performances, I’d rank Kate & Leopold right up there with Billy Madison and Get Out. “The Duke Of Margarine thinks me a serpent,” he scoffs at one point after Leopold has been hired as the spokesperson for a diet butter spread.

I’m both proud and embarrassed to say that I watched this movie so many times during my middle-school years that I can still recite Leopold’s “fresh creamery butter” commercial by heart. And while I’m sure I’m not alone in imprinting on this movie at just the right age for it to become an obsession, for the most part Kate & Leopold is a romantic comedy that’s been a little bit lost to time—fitting considering its subject matter. These days it’s probably best remembered as the film that helped secure Jackman’s rise to leading man status in the years between X-Men and X2. He was nominated for a Golden Globe and consistently singled out as a highlight across Kate & Leopold’s mixed reviews. And beyond kicking off his partnership with Mangold, it also seems to have unlocked Jackman’s love of playing forward-thinking Gilded Age men. You could consider Kate & Leopold the first part of an unofficial trilogy with The Prestige and The Greatest Showman.

For all its flaws and forgettability, Kate & Leopold works better than it has any right to, mostly thanks to its talented cast and Mangold’s subtly graceful filmmaking, which is filled with long takes and elegant camera moves. There’s something undeniably cozy about this film, even if it never quite lives up to its potential—either in its theatrical edition or its slightly longer director’s cut, which introduces the idea that Leopold is Stuart’s great‑great‑grandfather and gives Kate a few more notes of cynicism.

In either version, Kate & Leopold works best when it leans into the idea that its whole story is a fairy tale. In his commentary, Mangold talks about the movie being sweet and open-hearted in a way that was swiftly falling out of fashion in the early aughts. And his greatest insight of all is that if you need someone to sell your old-fashioned fairy-tale romance, there’s no better Prince Charming than Hugh Jackman.

Next time: Charade is a perfect rom-com thriller for the Halloween season.