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A Write-off

'Alex & Emma' fails to ignite

By Richard von Busack

IN ITS OWN WAY, Alex & Emma may prove to be a milestone. With luck, it'll mark the end of the derivative, chemistry-free romantic comedy that its director, Rob Reiner, pioneered way back in 1989 with When Harry Met Sally. What followed was a string of sitcomish, distractedly cute, faux-urban date movies that taught a new generation how to fake an orgasm.

That it could all be over for this kind of film is suggested in the look of Alex & Emma. The studio must not have had much faith in it; it has an underproduced, from-hunger quality. It's shot in an insultingly obvious street set, with one montage in tourist Boston. And it stars Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, a pair of leads that in any sensible movie would be playing the wacky best friends of the hero and heroines. Alex & Emma has the faded quality of a post-Harry Met Sally, including the slow trading of whimsical, sub-Neil Simon wisecracks and--unforgivable since this is a movie about writing--a completely underwritten female character.

The film is based on the history of how Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler. Beset by debts, the Russian master had one month to come up with a book. Hiring a secretary to help him, the author fell in love. Here, Wilson's Alex Sheldon--author of a novel called Love Always Means Having to Say You're Sorry--is menaced by Cuban gangsters to whom he owes a small fortune. His publisher (played by Reiner) refuses to give him another advance until he finishes his latest book. Since the loan sharks destroyed his computer, Alex hires as a secretary Emma Dinsmore (Hudson), who helps with his narrative. As she transcribes his ideas, her skepticism helps shape the book from a hackneyed plot to what's supposed to be a slightly less hackneyed plot. Alex's story (which he and Emma perform in fantasy scenes) involves a 1920s triangle among a tutor (Wilson), a seductive upper-class woman with expectations of an inheritance (Sophie Marceau), and a maid who has various ethnic accents in various drafts of the novel. All the maids are played by Hudson.

As she is in The World Is Not Enough, Marceau is suitably fun, even if Reiner's idea of her bad-girlness is vague (she takes bubble baths). Hudson's German shtick is momentarily diverting--remember Rob Reiner's father, Carl, was the great dialect comedian of his day. Wilson, as reliable as he is as a straight man, is inert, and it seems as if the very framework of this whole school of comedy is to blame. The Harry Met Sally-style romantic comedy by Reiner and his sometimes collaborator Nora Ephron, insists that you choose a mate not because they're scintillating but for their qualities of wear in the long run, like a person buying sensible shoes. This vote for bland coziness opposes the screwball comedy's golden era (no one ever accused Carole Lombard of being sensible); and it's hard to dramatize the attraction when the film is essentially urging the audience not just to settle down but to settle for less.

Alex & Emma (PG-13; 110 min.), directed by Rob Reiner, written by Jeremy Leven, Adam Scheinman and Reiner, photographed by Gavin Finney and starring Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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Web extra to the June 19-25, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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