Combustible Celluloid
Get the Poster
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
Download at i-tunes Download on iTunes
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: Luke Wilson, Kate Hudson, Sophie Marceau, Rob Reiner, David Paymer, Rip Taylor, Cloris Leachman
Written by: Jeremy Leven
Directed by: Rob Reiner
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some language
Running Time: 96
Date: 06/16/2003

Alex & Emma (2003)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Alex' in Blunderland

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It was director Rob Reiner who in 1989 helped establish one of the high-water marks of the modern romantic comedy with When Harry Met Sally, and now he's back with one of the shoddiest and blandest of knock-offs. To start, Alex & Emma doesn't even look like a professional movie. Its lazy cinematography (by Gavin Finney) and editing (by Robert Leighton and Alan Edward Bell) wouldn't even come close to receiving a passing grade in a high school AV class.

Looped dialogue doesn't match the actors' lips, arty lighting comes from nowhere and cuts between shots reveal awkward continuity jumps. Once, the editors needlessly cut into the middle of a dramatic zoom. Our last big romantic comedy, Two Weeks Notice, had the same problem. Why does Hollywood have the idea that romantic comedies don't deserve technical competence? The ineptitude doesn't end there. Alex & Emma is supposedly based on Fyodor Dostoevsky and his experience in writing The Gambler (1867). Heavily in debt, Dostoevsky dictated that novella to a female stenographer over the course of one month and then married her.

Alex & Emma starts with a similar premise. Writer Alex (Luke Wilson) begins work on his second book. He's gambled away a fortune and is now in debt to Cuban mobsters. His faithful publisher (Reiner) agrees to pay him the money he needs upon receipt of a finished manuscript. Blocked, he tricks a temporary stenographer, Emma (Kate Hudson), into coming over and then talks her into staying. He proceeds to dictate a particularly awful work to her, and the movie "flashes back" to the novel as it takes place, not unlike the far superior Adaptation.

It's the 1920s, and Adam Shipley (Wilson) is in love with a gorgeous, dreamy French woman (Sophie Marceau), who is about to marry the witless John Shaw (David Paymer) for money. Hudson eventually appears as an au pair who changes nationalities three times and sets up an obvious love triangle. How this "novel" relates to Dostoevsky, or even F. Scott Fitzgerald to whom it also alludes, is ludicrous. At best, this is the type of novel with Fabio painted on its cover. But strangely, everyone in the movie thinks the new book is "great" and calls Alex a "real talent."

In the present, Alex and Emma fight almost constantly, form a bond, fall in love, have a fight and make up, all according to cue. The actors show no chemistry and we never feel gushy toward them the way we did toward Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral or Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping. Wilson manages to ooze some of his slow-witted, down-home charm into the picture, but Hudson has not one stitch of her mother's talent or screen presence. (Yes, even The Banger Sisters is better than this movie.) In Alex & Emma Hudson tries to show off by performing three different "accents," (Swedish, German and Spanish), but it comes off like a tired Vaudeville routine.

What hurts is the obvious contempt the studio feels towards the audience. They've decided that they need to program a romantic comedy -- any romantic comedy -- in a certain "slot" in the summer schedule, and they slapped one together with as little care or concern as possible. But even worse is that they called upon Reiner to do it. This is the man who debuted with This Is Spinal Tap and followed it up with such clever comedies as The Sure Thing, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and The American President -- not to mention the darkly humorous Misery.

Maybe his creative juices have simply run out, or maybe he's concentrating too much on his impending political career. I'd like to think that, besides his two acting scenes that bookend the movie, he wasn't even on the set at all. It would explain a lot.

(This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

Movies Unlimtied