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In a romantic comedy about writing, the screenplay falls short

June 20, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"Alex & Emma" presents itself as a romantic comedy about a writer who's having problems producing what turns out to be an excellent book. In reality, it is a not particularly comic or romantic film about the writing of a truly tedious novel. This is double trouble with a vengeance.

Wasting the talents of Kate Hudson, Luke Wilson and Sophie Marceau, this Rob Reiner-directed film is unconvincing in its core idea -- said to be inspired by Dostoevsky but likely to have the poor man weeping in his grave -- and in its execution.

As written by Jeremy Leven (responsible for such desultory efforts as "Creator" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), "Alex & Emma" wants to be a happy film about the cross-pollination of life and art, but ends up a painfully contrived and artificial exercise in futility.

As our story opens, futility is what Boston-area novelist Alex Sheldon (Wilson) is feeling. Not only does he have a major creative block, but he also owes big money to a pair of Cuban loan sharks. They torture him, torch his computer and tell him that unless he comes up with $100,000 in 30 days he will be terminated.

By the merest coincidence, Sheldon's publisher, Wirschafter (Reiner himself), is salivating at the chance to put $125,000 into the young writer's hands. All he needs is the manuscript from our boy, and the check is in the mail.

In a saner world than this film resides in, Alex would have bought another computer or, failing that, a cheap manual typewriter. Instead he gets the screwy idea of hiring a legal stenographer to take down the vital words he is too blocked to come up with in the first place.

Enter Emma Dinsmore (Hudson), dressed primly enough for a "Legally Blonde 2" audition. Naturally, they mistrust and dislike each other at first sight, and just as naturally she promptly goes to work for him. Emma turns out to be a feisty type who can't resist the opportunity to second-guess every line and plot twist Alex comes up with.

And no wonder. Alex's novel, set in 1924 and following the adventures of a young tutor who can't decide if he's in love with his sophisticated French employer or a poor but honest American au pair, is so dreadful that it's beyond believing anyone would want to publish it, let alone offer a six-figure advance.

Making matters worse, we get to see this novel played out on screen, with Marceau as the woman of the world, Wilson as the smitten tutor and Hudson as the au pair. All of this, with one tiny exception, is less interesting than you can possibly imagine.

The exception is a result of Alex's indecision over whether the au pair should be the Swedish Ylva, the German Elsa or the Spanish Eldora. Hudson plays all three, and although those sections last but seconds, she displays a bright comic ability that is both a welcome contrast to the rest of the film and a reminder of the gifts of mother Goldie Hawn.

Aside from these crumbs, "Alex & Emma" has precious little to recommend it. Wilson and Hudson have been appealing elsewhere and doubtless will be so again, but they can't escape the morass of Leven's whiny script, and neither can the film.

As for director-actor Reiner, sharp-eyed viewers will notice that he's placed a jar of Fox's U-Bet, the nonpareil chocolate syrup, on his character's desk. How someone who appreciates that kind of genuineness can turn out something like this is more of a puzzle than any of the nominal mysteries of creation "Alex & Emma" tries to unravel.


'Alex & Emma'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some language

Times guidelines: It's all relatively mild

Kate Hudson ... Emma Dinsmore

Luke Wilson ... Alex Sheldon/Adam Shipley

Sophie Marceau ... Polina

David Paymer ... John Shaw

Franchise Pictures presents a Reiner-Greisman production, an Escape Artists production, released by Warner Bros. Director Rob Reiner. Producers Rob Reiner, Jeremy Leven, Alan Greisman, Todd Black, Elie Samaha. Executive producers Peter Guber, Jeffrey Stott, Steve Tisch, Jason Blumenthal. Screenplay Jeremy Leven. Cinematographer Gavin Finney. Editors Robert Leighton, Alan Edward Bell. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design John Larena. Art director Helen Harwell. Set decorator Andi Brittan. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

In general release.

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