“You’re sucking the life out of American cinema,” says a market research exec to Meg Ryan’s titular Kate. Well, maybe not, but Ryan’s new film, Kate & Leopold is certainly vampyric. Kate spearheads focus groups for CRG Research, refining lies until they resemble truth. Since Ryan has had the date crowd cornered ever since she went faux-orgasmic for Billy Crystal, take her latest stint as self-reflexive PR work. Hugh Jackman’s Leopold is a man of invention, a duke from 1876 New York who time travels to the present via the Brooklyn Bridge, thanks to his screwy great-great-grandson, Stuart (Liev Schreiber). Leopold is chivalrous man meat: he teaches Kate’s brother, Charlie (Breckin Meyer), the art of snagging booty, redeems Kate’s stolen purse via a Central Park horse escapade and wins a role in a Farmer’s Bounty commercial that gnaws away at his morality (he actually tastes the farmer’s putrid butter). In the end, Kate & Leopold‘s lackadaisical view of market research suggests truth lies in public acceptance, never distinguishing between the earnestness of creation and its pre-fabrication.
Leopold takes Kate to task for disliking her job; he’s as clueless to the need for a job in a cutthroat New York as he is oblivious to the notion that the public certainly doesn’t mind licking his foul-tasting butter. Forget director James Mangold’s feeble-minded cinematic dissertations, his contempt for the female spectator seemingly strikes an accidental nerve of truth (a nurse’s fondness for burlesque novels informs her belief in Stuart’s time-traveling woes). If love for that which is fantastical is predicated on one’s own idyllic view of reality, is a film like Kate & Leopold a product of truth or lies when reconstructed according to the whims of focus groups? If a 35-year-old woman with a plump waistline and a fondness for Danielle Steele warms up to diet butter via Jackman’s sculpted mug, it probably doesn’t matter that Kate doesn’t like her job or that her butter tastes bad. In the end, Meg, um Kate, has given the public exactly what it wants.
That said, Kate & Leopold is a mixed bag. Stuart (Kate’s ex-boyfriend) goes back in time, taking snapshots of jolly old New York while giggling along to the traditional usage of the word erection. Once Stuart and Leopold make their way to the present, culture shock is served Jackie Mason-style. Leopold steps out of Stuart’s apartment only to come in contact with a rainbow block party: present are three Hassidic Jews, three African-Americans, two goths and a roller-skating raver. Welcome to New York, Leopold; fret not, though, the next block is gentrified for you and your pooping dog’s pleasure! The film’s first half is a lacerating acoustic rape: Bart the dog yaps, the smoke alarm beeps, Kate screams, window blinds are pulled, stereos blare and an affected Bradley Whitford single-handedly reinvents the asshole. Once the film turns the volume down and stops hawking its cinematic thesis, Mangold effectively plays dumb with his run-of-the-mill romance. “Moon River” is put to evocative use, old-school Leopold goes back to the 19th century, time-travel gets the oh-so-cute detail work and gotta-love-her career-bitch Kate eats humble butter. By then you might just forget Stuart slept with his great-great grandmother for five years.
Kate & Leopold looks crummy on the small screen though that has less to do with the transfer to DVD than with the film's listless daytime color palette. Contrast is poor and blacks are muggy though the film does come to life when cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) breaks out the candlelight. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is anything but dull. Rolfe Kent's score is intimate and Sting's "Until" song is so unobtrusive you might forget it's even there.
The deleted scenes included on the Kate & Leopold DVD more than confirms that artistic integrity was perhaps lost sometime after the film entered test screening phase. On the accompanying commentary track, Steve Mangold says that many of these scenes were cut because they made the film drag. Sadly, included here are three or four scenarios that would have filled in the film's narrative loose ends. Not only does Liv Schreiber's deleted scene inside a elevator shaft provide a clean transition between his fall down the shaft and his gurney ride to the hospital, it also represents what could be the funniest scene never to make it into an otherwise unfunny film. More tragic: if you noticed that elevator-inventor Leopold never negotiates the trouble his creation brings to modern New Yorkers, those deleted scenes are also included here. A three-minute Costume Featurette is less concerned with stitching than bemoaning the nervous twitches of a director making his first period film. Also included here is a Stills Gallery, the music video for Sting's Oscar-nominated "Until," a perfectly serviceable "On the Set" documentary that runs 14 minutes and an optimistic director's commentary that confirms that Slant Magazine should have been given final cut on Kate & Leopold. And while Roberto Benigni sends chills up my spine, it was nice to see a trailer for his upcoming Pinocchio on the disc's promotional Sneak Peeks section.
Just in time for Christmas in July. Wrap it up and give it to that woman in your life still hung up on Meg Ryan faking orgasms.