Crap Out

Loosely based on The Gambler, Alex and Emma, sadly, takes no risks at all

Alex and Emma

Multiple locations

The number of boring, uninspired studio pictures hitting today's multiplexes is getting depressing. To add insult to injury, many of these mind-numbing creations come from formerly -- and presumably still -- talented writers, directors and actors. Last week saw Hollywood Homicide, a tired -- and what's worse, lazy -- buddy-buddy/cop/action comedy, written and directed by Ron Shelton, the considerable talent behind Bull Durham and Tin Cup. This week it's Rob Reiner's turn. His snoozer, the romantic comedy Alex and Emma, almost makes Shelton's film look good. Almost.

Written by Jeremy Leven -- and loosely based on most unexpected source material, Fyodor Dostoevsky's short novel The Gambler -- the film stars Luke Wilson as Alex Sheldon, a novelist suffering a bad case of writer's block. If he doesn't get his next book finished -- make that, started and finished -- in the next 30 days, he won't get paid the $100,000 he needs to repay a couple of Cuban loan sharks who have promised to drop him from his third floor window if he doesn't get the dough.

After his laptop is trashed by the thugs, Alex decides to hire stenographer Emma Dinsmore (Kate Hudson), who types as he dictates his novel. Despite being wary of Alex's intentions -- he initially claims to be hiring her for a job at an up-market, downtown law firm -- she takes the job.

The novel, set in early twentieth-century New England, concerns a young man named Adam Shipley (also portrayed by Wilson), who is hired to tutor the children of exceedingly sexy French widow Polina (Sophie Marceau). Adam is instantly smitten, but Polina is also being courted by a wealthy businessman (David Paymer). Adam's passion for Polina blinds him to the possibility of a relationship with the children's Swedish au pair, Ylva (Hudson). Various revisions of the novel recast her as German, then Spanish and then American, all of them played by Hudson.

No shrinking violet, Emma dispenses her unsolicited opinions freely, criticizing not only Alex's characters and plot developments but, on an even more basic level, challenging the universal male propensity for falling in love with beautiful, unattainable women rather than the more ordinary sort who hover nearby. A sort of battle-of-the-sexes erupts in this tiny apartment in Boston, although no one in the audience will be surprised when the prickly relationship slowly begins to soften... until, that is, Polina's flesh-and-blood counterpart (Marceau again) shows up at Alex's door.

The good -- to say nothing of the great -- romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman for the former; The Awful Truth, The Thin Man, Pat and Mike for the latter) rely on perfectly-delivered witty dialogue, brisk pacing and, of course, engaging characters. Sadly, Alex and Emma has none of these. It's like an amateur theater production. Reiner rushes through the setup in such a mad dash that it feels like a cartoon. Hudson, so good in Almost Famous -- and not much else since then -- substitutes squinted eyes and a scrunched-up nose for acting, although she's better in the purely comic role of the ethnically challenged au pair. The normally reliable Wilson seems out to lunch or perhaps just a bit embarrassed by it all.

Both actors speak in an odd sort of rhythm and cadence that is presumably meant to be breezy but, instead, sounds affected. Certainly it would make sense for the novel's characters to speak this way, but not when the action shifts to the present. To make matters worse, there is absolutely no chemistry between the two stars (Marceau is the only actor who emerges with her reputation unsullied). Reiner's staging of scenes is pedestrian at best, with very traditional over-the-shoulder shots alternating between Alex and Emma's perspective.

Sadly, films like this seem to be a dime a dozen these days, as if directors, actors and writers are just going through the motions, figuring the audience won't notice. Maybe they're right. Maybe viewers today really aren't that demanding and will embrace this film. Heaven knows, you can't enter a multiplex these days without being hit in the face -- and wallet -- with just this kind of disappointing, undemanding, hackneyed material.

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