NO KISSES FOR “KATE & LEOPOLD”; EVEN SOME LAST-MINUTE TINKERING IS UNLIKELY TO SAVE THIS SOULLESS ROMANTIC COMEDY SET WITHIN A TIME-TRAVEL FRAMEWORK

It’s Christmas, so maybe in the game of bait-and-switch, you actually get a better present.

Unlikely in the case of “Kate & Leopold,” however. The version screened to sneak-preview audiences and critics has gone through last-minute editing (some merciful: more on that later). But post-production magic probably can’t fix the soul of this time-travel romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman.

Director James Mangold takes an unlikely jaunt from “Cop Land” and “Girl Interrupted” to take on the screwball-comedy rite of passage. Scientist Stuart Besser (Liev Schreiber) finds a “crack in the fabric of time” and lands in New York, April 1876. Besides committing mixed metaphors, he inadvertently brings back the inventor of the elevator, Leopold, the Third Duke of Albany.

The inventor, though, hasn’t gone beyond scale models. Occupying the mind of the impoverished duke had been demands to augment the family fortune by virtue of a well-to-do bride. Meanwhile, back in the future, Kate McKay (Meg Ryan) is a month into brooding over the breakup of her four-year relationship with mooch Stuart, who lives upstairs. The encounter between the modern miss and the courtly Victorian gent is predestined, especially when Stuart obligingly steps out of most of the picture by falling through the elevator shaft, mysteriously deprived of an elevator, and somehow ends up in the hospital’s psychiatric ward.

Get it? By this miscarriage of temporality, Leopold didn’t invent the elevator. Then again, why the shaft? This isn’t a sci-fi movie, but you end up brooding about inconsistencies (such as Leopold’s too-ready acceptance of modern-day New York) instead of being entranced by a weekend romance that transcends time, even as Ryan and Jackman are doing their darndest to be, respectively, vulnerable yet spunky or handsome and chivalrous.

In an eerie echo of Helen Hunt’s character in last year’s “What Women Want,” Ryan plays an ambitious but ultimately insecure and unsatisfied marketing executive. Her famous likability saves an otherwise unsympathetic character. She’s remarkably rude to Leopold because he’s staying with her ex, then immediately tries to market his sincerity in a margarine commercial. She willingly overlooks a little sexual harassment from her smarmy boss (a waste of Bradley Whitford’s talent), until a man from 1876 sets things to rights. (By the way, more power to Ryan for being an older leading lady, although technically Jackman is playing a guy 125 years her senior.)

Ryan and/or Jackman devotees will be dead-set on going. Others should wait to rent “Happy Accidents,” a much more crackling time-travel romance with Vincent D’Onofrio and Marisa Tomei.

As for the edits: One undeserved trim is a scene in which Kate and a film director argue over a test screening. “You’re sucking the life out of American cinema!” rages the director, played by Mangold. Mangold has had to edit himself out — surely the unkindest cut of all.

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at vchan@cctimes.com.

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