Having toured the psychiatric ward in Girl, Interrupted and slogged through small-town corruption in Cop Land, writer-director Mangold settles this time around for a visit to present-day Manhattan -- as well as Manhattan in 1876, when hansom cabs clicked over the cobblestones and the elevator had not yet been invented. (It had, actually, but let it go.) This double vision grows out of a dramatic conceit, which is also the joke on which the entire movie turns. Having slipped through a convenient crack in time -- probably the same one Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd turned into a box-office windfall in 1985 -- a 19th-century English duke named Leopold (Hugh Jackman) suddenly finds himself in the presence of an impatient, thoroughly up-to-date 21st-century career woman named Kate McKay (Ryan). It takes just a New York minute for the familiar shoots of romantic fantasy to sprout anew.
Despite his white britches and embroidered tunic, Jackman's displaced nobleman doesn't look any weirder than thousands of other eccentrics wandering the streets of the big city, but he has a far more profound effect. Equipped with fine Victorian manners, courtly speech, and a firm belief in honorable behavior, the Duke of Albany is that rarest of creatures -- an authentic gentleman. In his own day, he's come to old New York under family orders to find a rich wife. Plunked down amid the bewildering discourtesies and verbal ineptitudes of our time, he's both a freak and a dream, and in the course of just three or four days, he manages to civilize and improve almost everyone around him. In the case of the all-business, magic-proof heroine, she's simply unable to resist when what she thinks is a nutjob in a Sergeant Pepper costume sweeps her up onto a white horse in Central Park, then gallops off in hot pursuit of the scoundrel who's snatched her purse.
Meanwhile, Mangold and co-writer Steven Rogers have all kinds of devious fun with the culture clashes and comic archaisms time-travel humor engenders. Kate's ex-boyfriend, Stuart (Liev Schreiber), the dreamy amateur scientist who discovers the movie's time warp, stands, 35mm mini-camera in hand, amid a gaggle of top-hatted Victorians at the dedication of the brand-new Brooklyn Bridge. Naturally, the blustering speaker at the podium hails it as "the greatest erection on the planet." A little later, when Stuart and Leopold have shot forward to 2001, the duke finds himself baffled by Gillette Foamy shaving cream, assaulted by heavy metal and shouting heads on TV, and then confounded by a policewoman who insists he clean up a pile of dog dung.
Not to worry. Early on, the filmmakers establish Leopold's credentials as a futurist (he will later invent . . . okay, has invented the elevator), and he adjusts to the frenzies of 21st-century life with astonishing ease (sometimes, too astonishing). He works his effortless charm on Kate, a frantic market researcher who's hardened by the realities of contemporary life and supposedly immune to fairy tales. He gives courtship lessons to her bungling brother Charlie (Breckin Meyer), an out-of-work actor who thinks his new pal Leo's British act is perfection. "You are sooo method," Charlie exults.
Leopold sings excerpts from The Pirates of Penzance with a neighbor kid and manages to shame Kate's pompous boss (Bradley Whitford), who's been trying a crass sexual blackmail ploy on her. Two days in contemporary Gotham, and our Leopold's gone native. In the movie's sharpest jab at the follies of postmodern culture, he even lucks into a gig as a TV pitchman for margarine. The music in his voice, his natural elegance, and his classic good looks are all perfect for the job -- until the moment when this finely tuned 19th-century aesthete actually tastes the product.
The tireless Ryan reprises the sunshine she brought to Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, Jackman provides just the right edge of surrealism, and Schreiber plays his worrywart to the hilt. But the heart and soul of Kate & Leopold lie in ideas -- in the none-too-original notions that our urban world moves far too fast, that commerce has coarsened us, that we could all do with some infusions of old-fashioned respect and heartfelt romance. Fine, except that Mangold gets stuck in the gooey sweet spots of his tale a little more often than he breaks loose with a bracing jolt of perversity.
Still, there are some admirable examples of the latter. At the 1876 ball where the glum duke is supposed to be shopping for a wife, one of the unfortunate-looking candidates muses: "I've never actually been to England, but my father's teeth were made there." But Mangold lifted the movie's best joke in an 11th-hour trip to the editing room following press previews. It concerned the matter of Stuart's lineage: In the original cut, he was a direct descendant of the Duke of Albany, and it took only a moment's thought to realize the kinky implication that had emerged from Mangold's time-traveling plot: As Kate's former boyfriend, Stuart had doubtless had sex with his own great, great-grandmother.
If that's the stuff of fairy tales in the new millennium, so be it.