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Movie Review: BOUNCE and KATE AND LEOPOLD Offer Better-Than Expected Romantic Fare

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It’s fitting that Bounce and Kate and Leopold are hitting Blu-ray the same day; each represents a rare anomaly in contemporary romantic dramas; they appear far more mediocre than they actually are.

The two films belong to the “Ellipsis Story” genre.  Many “high concept” pictures fall into this category; if you were to write a description of one, the hook—generally the most trite aspect—falls right after the point you’d use ellipsis notation for emphasis.

To wit:

Bounce:  Ad executive Buddy Amaral (Ben Affleck) is racked with guilt after giving his plane ticket to a man who then dies in the ensuing plane crash….and those feelings intensify when Buddy begins a relationship with the man’s grieving widow (Gwyneth Paltrow).

You think you’re getting a character study (you know, the kind of movie the French like), and then BAM!  The ellipsis reveals a brand of contrivance that we soap opera-loving Americans eat up.  Here’s another example:

Kate and Leopold: Type-A single gal Kate McKay (Meg Ryan, at the start of her Botox days) doesn’t have time for a man in contemporary New York City, but that all changes when her scientist ex-boyfriend (Liev Schreiber) introduces her…. to a time-traveling duke (Hugh Jackman) from 1876.

That one starts a little more frothy than Bounce does (I don’t know about you, but I hear “single gal” and “New York City,” and my mind immediately goes to Nora Ephron), so the ellipsis twist doesn’t jar the reader as much, but the same principle applies; we go “high concept” after we see the “dot, dot, dot, dot.”

It’s painfully easy to loath movies like these (they practically invite you over for a ridicule session),  but a funny thing happens with Bounce and Kate and Leopold: they actually work.  I’m not saying that either picture is some underrated slice of genius—though Bounce comes awfully close—but they manage to satisfy their target audiences (i.e., yuppie women) while providing more-than enough for the non-rom-com-inclined (i.e., myself).

It’s all a matter of director agency.  I can easily imagine a Kate and Leopold or a Bounce directed by a Robert Luketic or a Gary Winick—they’d realize the “high concepts” with bottom-of-the-barrel competency (IMDb them and then tell me I’m wrong)—but James Mangold (Kate and Leopold) and Don Roos (Bounce)?  Horses of a different color.  Over the last twenty years, Mangold has quietly turned himself into a modern-day Michael Curtiz, moving from genre to genre with an unassuming professionalism.  Movies like 3:10 to Yuma, Cop Land, Walk the Line, and the great Girl, Interrupted: they just work, with a minimum of fuss and frills, and Kate and Leopold has the same ease.

Mangold downplays the whole time-travel aspect—it’s the MacGuffin, designed to bring out heroes together and nothing more—focusing instead on the gentle culture-shock that Jackman’s time-displaced Leopold experiences.  I say “gentle” because Leopold doesn’t do what we expect (no “wacky” freak-outs here).  He fancies himself somewhat of a scientist in his own time, and he reacts to present-day Manhattan with an appealing mix of amusement and wonder.

Where Kate and Leopold stumbles is on the “Kate” end of the equation.  By 2001, Meg Ryan’s best days as a rom-com heroine were long behind her, and she’d grown too insular; her rapport with Jackman never sparkles the way it should because she never seems that into him.  However, she isn’t bad, and Mangold more-than compensates for her with crisp direction and wonderful performances from Jackman, Schreiber, and Breckin Meyer, who nearly steals the movie as Ryan’s struggling actor brother.

Don Roos, on the other hand, made a name for himself crafting bitter little indie comedies (everyone loves The Opposite of Sex, and rightly so, but his Happy Endings is just as good and is far more emotionally wrenching) with none of the treacle that Bounce‘s description suggests, and I credit his low bulls—t meter for creating a Bounce that transcends its high concept.  Roos keeps the focus on these two vulnerable people; their trappings might ring false, but they react to them with believable and refreshingly understated dignity.

The end result gives Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow two of their best performances.  Paltrow has gotten lots of flack of late for her impenetrable media presence; she’s less a person than a singing/dancing/acting/Coldplay-offspring bearing machine.  But, here, we notice the silence of her Abby Janello.  Paltrow regards every hurt or joy on a molecular level—it’s amazingly subtle work.  And Affleck is just as good, finding the insecurity and pain behind his then-standard frat-boy charm.  You see how his alcoholism informs his actions without overwhelming them, how his affection for Abby awakens something he doesn’t quite grasp, how pervasively he fears her learning the truth about him.

Affleck and Paltrow are so good, you wish Roos could have written out the whole “Affleck unwittingly sends Gwennie’s husband to his death” angle; the director handles this bit about as well as one could, but it never doesn’t feel contrived.  Still, he locates greatness where we least expect it, and that’s achievement in and of itself.

Lionsgate offers the two films (both Miramax catalog titles) in decent-but-unspectacular HD transfers.  Detail is a little soft and slightly grainy on both (Bounce has more visible print defects), but the respective images are never less than watchable, and each film gets a solid 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

In terms of supplements, Bounce gets two commentaries (a solo Roos track and a scene-specific one between Roos, Affleck, and Paltrow), deleted scenes with commentary, a gag reel, two short behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a music video.  Things look much the same for Kate and Leopold, with its Mangold commentary, deleted scenes (w/optional commentary), two short behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a photo gallery.

For the most part, ignore the “Ellipses”—Bounce and Kate and Leopold provide better-than-average entertainment.  The Blu-rays have decent A/V and good bonuses.

Bounce and Kate and Leopold street on April 10th.  Click HERE and HERE for their Amazon listings.