- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

Poor Meg Ryan. First, her status as America's favorite screen sweetheart took a hit when the married actress pursued a liaison with Russell Crowe last year. Now she returns to the romantic-comedy genre in "Kate & Leopold" and finds herself outsparkled by budding star Hugh Jackman.
Miss Ryan could radiate adorable warmth from underneath a burka, but Mr. Jackman's magnetic turn as a 19th-century duke wooing Miss Ryan's thoroughly modern marketer is what gives the time-travel romance its zing.
The charm of Mr. Jackman's performance patches over more than a few plot quibbles, particularly the film's flimsy explanation for time travel.
Unlike other actors foisted upon the public as the next big thing think Penelope Cruz, Heath Ledger or Matthew McConaughey Mr. Jackman has the goods to back up the hype.
Director James Mangold, who previously tilled dramatic ground with "Cop Land" and "Girl, Interrupted," appears comfortable in the fizzy realm of romantic comedy. His first step into a Nora Ephron-style romance is an assured one.
The film lacks the obligatory oldies soundtrack, per the Ephron formula. Mercifully, Rosie O'Donnell doesn't pop up as Miss Ryan's best pal. What "Kate & Leopold" does possess is smart dialogue and several charming secondary characters to sustain our attention.
Miss Ryan's Kate is the epitome of the fictionalized single gal, a sassy, self-motivated New Yorker obsessed with both work and Stuart (Liev Schreiber), her faulty ex-boyfriend.
Stuart, a nebbish scientist, has more important matters to consider than their failed pairing. His years pursuing a rip in the fabric of time finally have succeeded. He travels back to the late 1800s, then inadvertently brings back one of its denizens, the befuddled Leopold.
Stuart hides Leopold in his too-accessible New York apartment. Kate quickly stumbles upon him, and their quirky courtship begins.
Leopold, the third Duke of Albany, is tired from the elusive pursuit of a bride among the 19th-century women of his day. Kate's frisky intellect and independent ways would seem the elixir he seeks.
Their love connection, however, won't be easy.
Kate, her blond hair cut in a severe style to match her manner, seems too practical to fall for Leopold's outdated courtship rituals. Nor does she believe, early on, that Leopold is anything but a deranged actor fixated on playing the part of a 19th-century duke.
Leopold can't decide what to make of a woman who cares more about a repellent brand of margarine than a sumptuously cooked five-course meal.
For much of the film, Mr. Mangold keeps the action whirring, as if aware that his comic souffle would collapse if given half the chance.
Naturally, the out-of-time Romeo is seen as idyllic, without pointing to any gender inequities inherent in his age.
Leopold's transformation from starry-eyed visitor to curious guest is sudden, though his scenes as a commercial actor pitching that repugnant margarine deftly complete the change.
The Australian-born Mr. Jackman adopts a convincing 19th-century dialect, comporting himself with all the dignity and grace of a romance-novel protagonist.
Miss Ryan, for her part, takes her sugary sweetness down a notch or two. Watching her character bristle through test screenings and other marketing mischief makes it clear she won't be easy to seduce.
Competent support flows from Natasha Lyonne (1999's "But I'm a Cheerleader"), abandoning her quirky past roles to play Miss Ryan's blandly supportive co-worker. Breckin Meyer (NBC's wobbly "Inside Schwartz") proves winning as Kate's younger brother, Charlie, a wannabe thespian who laps up Leopold's dating tips.
Watching Charlie pursue a girl using Leopold's antiquated tactics is Mr. Mangold's coy way of illustrating just how silly our dating rules can be.
Other story lines fall flat, such as the attempt of Kate's boss, played by Bradley Whitford of "The West Wing," to woo his star employee.
The film's final moments, lacking the unerring sense of efficiency of the rest, feel stretched out.
Mr. Mangold does well, though, evoking both the Victorian New York of yore and the complications of its modern-day counterpart.
Mr. Jackman's turn as the hirsute hero Wolverine in "X-Men" gave us a glimpse of his range. "Someone Like You" and "Swordfish," his pair of inferior follow-up films, didn't change that impression but stalled his momentum.
A healthy box-office return for the agreeable "Kate & Leopold" may elevate him from "next big thing" status to bona-fide star.

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