Alex and Emma (2003)Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some language.
Starring Kate Hudson, Luke Wilson, Sophie Marceau, David Paymer.
LVJeff's Rating: 4/10
Photo ©Warner Bros. All rights reserved.
I'm disappointed that Alex and Emma turned out to be so bland. This movie is directed by Rob Reiner, who helmed two of my favorite movies: When Harry Met Sally... and The Princess Bride. I watched both films many times in the years when I transitioned from high school to college -- when, I admit, I was quite impressionable -- and the abundant humor, along with the balance of modest cynicism and gentle optimism present in both, have continued to hold up strongly for me to this day.
I haven't seen all of Reiner's movies, but from looking at his filmography I know he had numerous successes early in his career, and then began to fade. His earlier works include This Is Spinal Tap (which I've seen and loved) and the popular Stand By Me and Misery, along with the two movies I mentioned above. However, his later films include North, which earned Roger Ebert's now famous disparagement, "I hated hated hated hated hated this movie!"; and The Story of Us, which my brother, whose tastes are similar to mine, assures me is terrible. Therefore, I knew better than to expect gold from Reiner's latest.
And yet, I set myself up for disappointment anyway. I hoped Alex and Emma could bring back the magic of those late '80's masterpieces. Sadly, I found Alex and Emma to be only a shadow of the kind of romantic comedy I knew Reiner was capable of making. Worse yet, I got the feeling he auto-piloted himself through this project; so much of it is corny and panders to its target audience.
Alex and Emma had potential in its high-concept premise -- a writer hires a stenographer to help him complete a romance novel in 30 days, and all the while the stenographer interjects her opinion on how the story is turning out. While the story is being dictated, we see it enacted, with the author playing the protagonist and his hire playing one of the other characters. Naturally, they'll fall in love, but not before we're given a peek into the creative process and its struggle to produce output pleasing to both the author and its potential audience (as represented by the stenographer). The movie does deliver a lightweight dose of this, and I suppose that's ok -- it would be too much to ask for something similar to the depiction of the madcap artistic inner conflict of Adaptation. Some funny, insightful exchanges of disagreement between the writer, Alex (Luke Wilson), and the stenographer, Emma (Kate Hudson), would be good enough.
Unfortunately, that only takes up a portion of the movie. It's overshadowed by a bad outer plot, some embarrassing jokes, and a lazy story path. I'm not even sure why it was necessary to impose a deadline for Alex, but if one had to be there, why did it have to do with threatening his life? He's supposed to finish the book or else some Cuban thugs he's borrowed money from will drop him from the balcony of his apartment. Give me a break. After this bad start, we get some gags that work and some that don't. Too bad the ones that don't are the ones you remember -- such as a flamenco dancing scene that should deliver high hilarity but instead falls flat.
The movie plays out in a predictable manner, and perhaps that's what saddened me the most. How could the guy who made When Harry Met Sally..., a movie about characters and not plot devices, direct a movie that trudges along such a worn trajectory? It travels this path without any spark, as if it were simply marking off all the romantic comedy checkpoints. We get an obligatory scene where the couple spends a day out together. When it's time to put them in bed with each other, the plot doesn't even offer an excuse -- they just decide it's ok to sleep in the same bed. And, of course, the lady must find some cheap way to misunderstand the guy and become angry with him before the two can reconcile.
I wish Reiner would have given Alex and Emma those brush strokes of earnest inventiveness and irreverent silliness that made his early works so good. This movie has smidgens of it -- like when Alex is creating a character and Emma suggests changes, causing the character's looks to change on the spot. But now he seems satisfied with getting by on cliches, while stealing old bits from The Princess Bride (someone drops dead in the manner of Vizzini) and When Harry Met Sally... (that old quirk of reading the end of a book first). It's like watching a stand-up comic falling back on an old routine -- you've heard it before, so it's less funny. And, in the case of Alex and Emma, it's also less romantic.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 17, 2003