by Ray Pride

A contemporary romance, a Manhattan lifestyle satire and a duke-out-of-water time travel comedy from the director of Heavy and Girl, Interrupted? Who would want to see that? Lots of people looking for romantic comedy over the Christmas holiday, that's who, and I'd like to think they won't be disappointed.

There's a welter of plot and characters, which is part of Kate & amp; Leopold's substantial charm. Meg Ryan plays a 40ish career woman, a test marketer whose life is starting to seem less than meaningful. She's just broken up with Stuart (Liev Schreiber), her upstairs neighbor, after four years, and as Kate describes him to her romance novel-besotted assistant, "I went with a visionary for four years, and I had to pay the rent."

Stuart's crackpot scheme is to travel back in time and discover the ways of an older island, and without undue fuss, he does, witnessing the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge 150 years before. He also unwittingly attracts the attention of a disaffected English duke who's due for marriage (Hugh Jackman, dashing, yes, but also genuinely funny), who winds up traveling back to the 21st century with him.

Ryan's perplexity and intensity are charming, along with her delicious petulance. She's no longer the kewpie doll. Director James Mangold and his collaborators have knit a modest, yet knowing portrait of the contemporary career woman at work and at home, for which we'll overlook a few moments of bumptious slapstick. Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography has a pleasing edge, an almost hand-tinted look. This New York looks loved-in. The script's brisk plotting and delineation of a close-knit community suggest the English 1950s Ealing comedies that Mangold knows so well, having studied under Alexander Mackendrick, who was one of the key practitioners of that dry but lasting kind of work. Stuart calls the plot's conundrums "a beautiful 4-D pretzel of kismetic inevitability"; I'll just say it's a minor but distinct joy.

New York is filled with dreams and delusions, and Mangold does a fine job of maneuvering his characters through their intimate spaces. "We wanted a feeling of New York, but we also wanted a feeling of fantasy," the director says of his fourth feature. "I was just trying to connect with the tone of the romances of the '50s. Fantastically comedic ones and straightahead ones. I love Breakfast at Tiffany's. I love Billy Wilder's The Apartment. These are movies that I adore. And I feel they have a real character of New York, but they also have a storybook character."

Kate & amp; Leopold is at least partly an attempt to stand apart from today's Hollywood comedy styles. "Unlike a lot of romantic comedies made today, there's a sense of real drama in these movies as well as comedy. The characters have someplace to go. They're not written from a kind of market-tested point of likability from the get-go. I think one of the things Meg was really interested in in this role, and I was really interested in, was that the sex roles are reversed and for once she's playing the less adorable of the two leads. She was playing an edgier careerist who had lost her sense of romance and how to breathe and how to live and love and was just in this race. Which is more often the male role in these movies. And Hugh was the figure of glamour in this picture."

Seeing the Brooklyn Bridge under construction is a lovely way to begin the film, a monument that still stands on its own, inside everyone's history, but also existing outside of it. I wondered what Mangold thought were the important changes from that era to our own century? "I wrote Meg as a market tester in general because I believe that back in the day, in Leopold's day, people stood for things, they didn't put their finger to the wind to figure out what they feel. One thing that was very clear about Leopold is that he says what he means and means what he says. And that's a very attractive thing. In a man or a woman. It's hard to do what you think is right in today's world and not be thought of as an idiot."

There are a lot of moments when characters get to react, kind of in-between moments before the next plot point. "It's letting things breathe," Mangold agrees. "As much as this film is being sold on the chivalry angle, what makes Leopold so appealing is that the movie itself has a kind of kindness to it. It's a courteous film."

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