“Kate & Leopold” comes this close (image of two fingers being held as closely together as possible without actually touching), this close, to getting an unqualified recommendation. It’s quite good, but it takes very nearly the whole first half of the movie to get started, and then after a few forays into delightful romantic comedy falls headfirst into complete but welcome predictability. The film would never be mistaken for high art, but if it’s romantic comedy you’re after, this one with Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman is about as good as the genre has produced in the last few years.

Romantic comedy itself has always been a dicey proposition. Ms. Ryan has been in some of the best of them, like “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” but it hasn’t been enough to entice everyone into a theater, especially men. The genre has the unfortunate and unwarranted reputation of being mostly for women, the kind of films girlfriends and wives drag their boyfriends or husbands into kicking and screaming. Once there, the guys often find the experience not as bad as they’d expected, but with the next romantic comedy they’re invited to the cycle starts all over. Alternatively, males have found the romantic comedy an expedient genre when in doubt about a new date. Usually, one can’t go too far wrong with a romantic comedy in terms of possible embarrassment or insult to a recent acquaintance. So it goes with “Kate & Leopold,” a thoroughly harmless and often engaging 2001 representative of the breed.

The movie begins with a time travel angle, which may or may not produce a tingle of anticipation from viewers. It’s an old gimmick, and in this case it takes a while to get started. Nor is it presented in any unique or plausible way. It’s just a device to get two characters together from two different ages and show us how opposites can still attract. Jackman plays an impoverished, unattached nobleman of the nineteenth century; Ryan plays a rising, unattached career woman of the twenty-first century. When their paths cross, you’d think they’d have nothing in common–he a member of the upper classes, breed to luxury in a society where women were largely oppressed; she a member of a liberated feminist generation used to being on equal terms with the men around her. But I suspect the film believes that deep down every man wants to meet a woman who can compete with him on his own level, and every woman wants to be swept off her feet by a gallant gentleman. Or vice versa. I’m not sure which, and I’m not sure the film completely understands the subject, either. In any case, the mismatch is one made in heaven or, more precisely, in Hollywood.

Liev Schreiber costars as Stuart Besser, a present-day fellow who makes the breakthrough in time travel that enable our story to happen. He discovers a crack in the time continuum (sounds impressive; means nothing), a portal to 1876; and all one has to do to turn back the clock is jump off the Brooklyn Bridge at a certain place at a certain hour. I kid you not. Keep saying to yourself, “It’s only a romantic comedy. It’s only a romantic comedy.” With this in mind, the movie works surprisingly well. Besser goes back to a period when Jackman, as Leopold Alexis Elija Graves Walker Thomas Mountbatten, the Third Duke of Albany, is visiting New York City to find a rich wife. Leopold is a most pragmatic individual, a hardened realist who, he says, has never felt love. Furthermore, he’d rather be an inventor than a member of the ruling class; as his uncle explains it, he was “born into privilege but perversely ashamed of it.” When Besser returns to the present, Leopold inadvertently returns with him.

Ms. Ryan plays Kate McKay, an executive with a market research firm. Her job is to preview and evaluate products like movies, cheese spreads, and commercials before they’re released. Paralleling Leopold, she’s practical and objective. Besser is her ex-boyfriend and lives in the apartment above her; she has just broken up with him because she saw their partnership going nowhere. Needless to say, she finds Leopold, with his highborn, gentlemanly deportment, impeccable manners, and fine British accent irresistible. Of course, it takes her most of the movie to recognize that he’s really from the past. She just thinks he’s an actor and puts him into a diet-spread commercial. But she finds his aristocratic ways charm the bejabbers out of her, and he finds her self-reliance enchantingly refreshing. It also helps that he’s handsome and she’s beautiful, or their relationship might never have gotten off the ground.

I thought the opening scenes rather slow and banal, the introduction to the time-travel maneuver and the lengthy exposition of characters time consuming. We have to wait impatiently through Leopold’s inevitable fumbling with the TV and stereo remotes, with modern aerosol shaving-cream cans, and with NYC’s pooper-scooper laws before anything of any consequence occurs. He’s a stranger in a strange land, to be sure, but we’ve seen his kind of mystification and surprise with modernism before. When the blossoming romance finally clicks into place (and an obnoxious dog belonging to Besser disappears), the movie picks up considerably, especially in a scene where Leopold jumps on a horse and rides through Central Park to rescue milady’s handbag from a thieving knave. It doesn’t help, unfortunately, that to get our pair of lovers together, the script writers have to remove Besser from the scene by making him fall down an elevator shaft and winding up in the hospital. I kid you not. Keep saying, “It’s only a romantic comedy; it’s only a romantic….”

By and large, this is Jackman’s film. His Leopold is the utmost in an elegant gentleman, and the actor is completely winning in the role. I can understand from this portrayal why some people have suggested him for the next Bond. He even tutors Kate’s brother, Charlie (Breckin Meyer), in the art of courtship, a la Cyrano, never minding how Leopold knows so much about the subject when he was supposed to be so disinterested in romance at the beginning of the story. Ms. Ryan, on the other hand, is simply her usual cute-as-a-butten self. She’s fine in the role, playing a basically sweet and thoroughly decent person, just as Leopold is. It appears that she will be playing these same parts until the day she dies, and more power to her. It’s good to see a woman approaching middle age still able to pull off a role Hollywood usually reserves for younger women. But what’s with that hair? In this film her normally cute, short shag has turned into a straight, medium-length mop. I assume it was intentionally meant to show her character’s straightforward common sense; her boss compliments her for not being into “pretty.” I don’t know, but I missed the old Ryan coiffure. Finally, Natasha Lyonne, an actress of considerable talent, is wasted in the role of Kate’s assistant. Oh, well….

Now, just a couple of casual questions: Like, how would two people with such disparate cultural backgrounds and outlooks on life feel about one another once the initial attractions of gallantry and independence wore off? Would Kate actually come to accept the difference between the Romantic nineteenth century label and true romance itself? Would Leopold actually find Kate’s autonomy and self-reliance an asset to his own manner of living? Who knows? Maybe their sheer niceness as human beings would be enough to carry them through. Let’s hope so. And, on a lesser note, why do people who live in New York City and apparently make a lot of money always live in tiny, two-room apartments, while people who live in NYC and aren’t making a cent live in spacious lofts? And why do people who live in the smallest apartments always own the biggest dogs? Besser’s dog is the size of a buffalo. And why must all time-travel movies mandate that unless such-and-such a thing happens by such-and-such a moment, all of world history will come crashing down? Only in the movies, I guess.

The picture quality is almost exactly what we have come to expect from Buena Vista transfers; that is, not perfect but quite good. The screen presentation measures an ordinary 1.74:1 widescreen, enhanced for widescreen TVs. The image is a little glossy, just slightly blurred, at times seemingly jagged, with a touch of line waver from time to time. The late nineteenth-century scenes are done predominantly in rich golds and browns, with a darkish overall tone. This fits the landscape and era admirably, but it carries over to a degree into the twenty-first century scenes, where it isn’t quite as fetching. Still, when the colors do brighten up, the people and settings look remarkably vivid, natural, and alive.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is admirable in every way. It projects a realistic presence throughout, with a convincing surround element in segments of rain, storm, and horse-drawn carriages, completely enveloping the listener in the environment it’s depicting. Claps of thunder prove the worth of the reproduction’s transient impact and its bass capabilities. In all, it’s a fine display of modern cinematic sonics serving the needs of the motion picture rather than mere showy display.

The most intriguing bonus on the disc is being able to choose between the original theatrical version of the film and the extended director’s cut. I chose the director’s cut, which is about four minutes longer than the original version, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what had been added in the extra few minutes. For the little added time, it couldn’t have done the picture any harm. Next, there’s a feature commentary with director James Mangold, followed by a fourteen-minute featurette, mostly hype, called “On the Set with Kate & Leopold.” Seven deleted scenes, with or without director commentary, may be of interest to the person who wants to see everything, and I would swear much of this was in the director’s cut. Then there’s a brief, three-minute costume featurette and a music video, “Until Now,” with Sting. As usual, BV honchos make sure we get plenty of Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista titles, but, regrettably, there isn’t a trailer for “Kate & Leopold” among them. How could they not have a trailer available for so new a film? Nineteen scene selections, English and French (for the director’s cut) spoken languages, English captions for the hearing impaired, and Spanish subtitles conclude the package.

Parting Thoughts:
I’m probably the wrong person to be asking advice about this picture. “Kate & Leopold” takes a standard romantic-comedy formula, adds a routine time-travel contrivance, and comes up with a corny, old-fashioned, and highly derivative confection that by its second half completely swept me away. I can honestly declare I started out not liking this picture very much and wound up wanting only to recommend it, possibly because the two principals are such supremely likable people. Put it this way: It will do you no harm. It’s carefree, starry-eyed, PG-rated entertainment, light as fizz. But I’m sure we all need a little effervescence once in a while to lighten the load. This one may have you floating on air.