In the film’s opening, we meet Stuart, a young, albeit somewhat antisocial and eccentric, scientist played by Leiv Schreiber. Meg Ryan plays Stuart’s former girlfriend, an ambitious Manhattan ad exec, Kate McKay. It’s not at all difficult for the viewer to see why these two are exes, as they quarrel back and forth about a lost item Kate was trying to retrieve from the uncooperative Stuart. Meg displays some interesting range here as the pair are both rather toxic personalities. But stay tuned, things are going to change!
Enter Hugh Jackman as Prince Leopold Mountbatten, the Duke of Albany in the year 1876. While the character exudes the respect, humor, charm and chivalry of the era, Leopold is less concerned with his place in the nobility as he is with the advancements of science. In the present day, Stuart has discovered through his calculations, a portal near the Brooklyn Bridge that takes him back to 1876. When Stuart first encounters Leopold, it is at a dedication ceremony for the bridge tower. Leopold observes Stuart observing him, and in the ensuing chase, he travels through the same portal and he lands in the present day at the same site as his home – which is now the apartment building where Stuart and Kate live. This disruption in the space-time continuum resulted in the present day elevators malfunctioning, as Leopold would have eventually perfected his invention, and the tenants on the apartment building are resigned to climb stairs for much of the film, pending extensive repairs,
Kate lives one floor above her ex-boyfriend. Due to the elevator malfunction, when Stuart leaves the apartment to take his dog outside, he falls down the elevator shaft and is hospitalized. In the meantime, Kate drops by Stuart’s place and meets Leopold. She is in a hurry to get to work and Leopold approvingly refers to her as a career woman, but Kate takes no notice of him except to tell him to walk the dog. Shortly thereafter, Kate’s brother, an unemployed actor, arrives for an extended visit and befriends Leopold, who becomes increasingly taken with Kate. None of them are aware that Stuart is in the hospital, recuperating from his injures and desperate to escape so he can return Leopold to his proper time, before the portal closes again. Stuart begins talking out loud about his scientific discoveries and the attending physician decides his patient must be psychotic, and refuses to discharge him, sending Stuart to a psychiatric ward instead.
This middle section of the film continues to feature some well crafted development of all four characters. While Stuart is trying to talk his way out of the hospital, we see more of the scientific zeal that drives him, as opposed to the shallow jerk he appeared to be in the beginning. There is a moment in the film when Stuart tells Kate that while he wasn’t the right guy for her, his purpose all along was to help her get to the right guy. He’s also friends with Kate’s brother. Meg Ryan’s Kate also displays different facets as the movie progresses. Perfect as the career ladder climber, Kate becomes more and more sympathetic as the audience learns of the stress she contends with in order to make a living.
Hugh Jackman commands every inch of screen where Leopold appears with true nobility, and some of the best scenes feature his 19th century character intersecting with present day New York. Especially effective is the scene where Leopold dispenses relationship advice to Kate’s brother, who also begins to display a less shallow aspect of his character. The Leopold character was so well done, I suspect he became the basis for the Prince in “Enchanted.”
In the scene where Kate is melting into the steady arms of Leopold, they are listening to a neighbor across the street, playing “Moon River: as he does, every night before he turns the lights out at midnight. it’s not too hard to see what the director was going for here. And yes, Meg is almost as much the tiny sprite with staggering spirit that was Audrey Hepburn, and Hugh Jackman isn’t a bad stand in for hunky George Peppard. A touching moment of tribute, at the very least.
Even if the time travel elements are not perfectly executed, the stories of the main characters are eventually woven into a logical conclusion, with some perfectly delicious touches along the way, and for Ryan fans, this is a movie not to be missed. Though it’s about time travel, what Kate and Leopold best accomplishes is to capture that need to look back to our younger selves, and to that world of possibility.
Meg shines here in another movie with fantastical elements that work magic on real life situations with passion, heart and soul. There simply is no collaboration with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks that does not sparkle with chemistry and wit.
Hank’s character, Joe Banks, has a dead end job in a plant near his home in Staten Island. Like so many people across America, working a thankless job for an abusive boss, he is slowly dying inside, as work is something to be dreaded but which brings a paycheck. The corporate machine was already beginning to use and discard human beings in the name of profits, branding and more profits by then, and the filmmakers insightfully highlight this reality with dramatic grace. The fact that the trend has continued makes the creative forces behind this film seem even more insightful and brilliant a quarter of a century later.
The link between stress and illness was known but not given much attention. In the movie, Banks is driven to see his physician over his chronic, no doubt stress-induced, ailments and gets the odd diagnosis of a “brain cloud” and less than 6 months to live. “Live well” the doctor advised.
Naturally, Banks quits his job the next day, deciding to live his remaining months as he wishes.
Banks makes a date with a cute secretary from work, played by Meg Ryan, and the pleasant evening ends on a discordant note when he tells her he is dying. She flees, after apologizing and telling him she can’t handle it. The next day, Banks is at home in his apartment when the knock comes on the door. A wealthy businessman, played by Lloyd Bridges, calls on Joe to offer him a luxurious lifestyle for the next couple of weeks, in exchange for jumping into a volcano on a remote S. Pacific island to appease the natives so that the businessman can mine the island for its natural resources, used to manufacture his products. Joe, who has nothing to lose, accepts the offer and spends the next day on a spending spree in the city, complete with chauffeured limo, before flying out to California to board a boat headed for the island.
Meg Ryan reappears briefly as one of the tycoon’s daughters, the redheaded, restless Angelica, meeting him at the airport, who escorts him to the dock to meet her half-sister, the skipper of the vessel – blonde, outspoken Patricia. They set sail with Joe bidding goodbye to Meg as Angelica, as the boat sails away, with Meg as Patricia at the helm.
I find this fascinating as a movie device and it begs the question: Why they didn’t get different actresses (although Meg does an admirable job appearing to be three different people)? If the goal was to showcase the overlooked range of Meg Ryan, it works beautifully. There won’t be any doubt in a viewer’s mind that Meg was capable of much more than her more famous roles.
Or, perhaps, it’s because of that sentiment expressed by Joe, that he has seen her somewhere before. This has to be the world’s leading opening line yet it’s delivered as only Hanks can, as if it’s a unique statement and you’re hearing it for the very first time. Certainly it makes you ponder what it all means anyway. If it’s a cliche, why is it so? Do we all unconsciously look for someone who reminds us of someone from our past? Having that mindset makes it easy to appreciate how quickly Joe and Patricia become bonded on the voyage, and through their misadventures on the island.
Although the movie is now a cult classic, I will not give any further spoilers in case anyone out there, like me, had either not seen it or not seen it in many years. Joe Versus the Volcano will have you hooked from beginning to end. Then again – so will Kate and Leopold.
About the Author: As well as being one of my most thoughtful, knowledgeable and supportive followers, RB is the author of RB Movie Reviews. I owe her a massive debt of thanks for getting in touch and sending this over. It’s always great to feature other people’s thoughts on the blog, long may it continue!