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Published: Friday, 6/20/2003

Movie review: Alex & Emma *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

We live in a post-Napster age where music and movies are free if you know how to download them, illegally traded online, peer to peer, cutting out the middle man. The ramifications are huge. The music business is convulsing; the movie industry is anxious to find a solution. If you're a critic, check-in at press screenings now resembles a pat-down at a Mexican border crossing. Warner Bros. is the most polite. It provides an on-screen message that reads, in short: Do not videotape its movies and download the footage to the Internet; if you spot someone in the theater with a video camera, find an usher; and so on.

At the expense of sounding glib, this hadn't been a problem for me until I saw Alex & Emma, the first Rob Reiner movie since The Story of Us, which starred Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer and the sound of one's own central nervous system grinding to a halt. This new one gives you the urge to bootleg, to ask a theater manager to stop the projector, if only to allow you to come back with a recording device. I considered finding an usher, too, so I could have a witness to a movie with the guts (or something else) to become a self-critique of its own lackadaisical awfulness.

What happened to Reiner? And why does his demise as a director of light, smart comedy like This is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally ... seem more painful than most? Alex & Emma is exceedingly slight, the work of an evergreen novice with that dangerous combination of no imagination and a modicum of ambition. It is a rare breed of bad, a hall of mirrors of bad in which bad reflects off bad: a bad movie about a bad writer writing a bad novel. Sounds like Adaptation? The difference is Alex doesn't recognize his novel as bad.

Neither do the rest of the characters. Neither does Reiner. If he had, that might have been fun. But instead, one bad movie becomes two bad movies: There is the modern romance between Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, and there is the movie-within-the-movie - the Jazz Age love triangle that Alex is trying to write, his Great American Novel. But it's all bad.

Alex's novel is an F. Scott Fitzgeraldish society drama. It takes place in 1924 and tells the tale of writer Adam Shipley (also played by Wilson), who tutors the children of a French woman, Polina (Sophie Marceau), who would like to tutor Adam, if you know what I mean. Everyone summers on the coast of Maine. Polina is in debt and about to marry a slimy rich guy (David Paymer). But Alex and Polina fall in lust. Meanwhile, there is the au pair (also played by Kate Hudson) who Alex - according to rule 4, section 2, paragraph 11 of the Law of Romantic Comedy - must come to realize is the real dream girl. She's been under his nose all along.

As unremarkable as all this is, insofar as Reiner just wants to entertain, there's no attempt at suspense, and Reiner flashes to this half of the story so arbitrarily the film lacks a sensible shape or momentum. Besides the slanting white rays of New England summer sun and the bleached tennis couture of the resort set, so little enthusiasm or invention is given to the Maine scenes, Reiner seems more indebted to the structure of Jeremy Leven's screenplay than interested.

Which brings us to the other half of the film. The one set in Boston, now. Alex is literally and figuratively indebted. To the Cuban Mob for $100,000. And to all of English literature. That is why he is having trouble with his book - he's intimidated by his peers. “Do you see why I can't begin?” he asks. “Dostoyevsky. Proust. Giants came before me.” He means this.

But anyway, the Cubans want their money in 30 days, which, coincidentally, is when Alex's editor (Reiner) wants Alex's next novel. Let me stop here for an aside, just to say that as much as the romance lacks credibility, Alex is possibly one of the least convincing movie writers in a long while. When the mob burns his laptop, he whines: “How do you expect me to write if I don't have a computer?” Which, again, would have been funny if anyone recognized the irony going on here. Wilson, the more logy of the talented Wilson brothers, doesn't help.

He has a solitary look of earnest confusion that doesn't lend itself to romantic comedy. He's so easygoing and laid-back we never sense he's in love or angry or even nervous about his predicament: He has that look of an actor watching the clock. Kate Hudson, on the other hand, seems determined to spike some life into this thing. She is Emma, a paralegal who answers Alex's ad for a stenographer and becomes the Girl Right Under His Nose. Stretching the limits of audience patience even further: Despite threats to his life, despite his not having the money to pay her, Emma agrees to dictate his novel, which Alex writes off the top of his head, pacing his dingy apartment, and most of the scenes are them arguing over words.

“Isn't this a clich ?” Emma asks Alex.

“They're cliches because they're true,” Alex answers Emma.

The cliches stay in.

I forgot something: Alex & Emma is actually a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. It's loosely based on a true story about Dostoyevsky. Because of immense gambling debts, he owed his publisher a novel in 30 days or he would have to relinquish the rights to all his novels, past and future. He hired a stenographer and wrote The Gambler and, in the process, fell in love with that stenographer. Call me crazy, but isn't that the movie we'd rather see?



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