LOS ANGELES—For those in need of an infusion of romance because movie hearts have been barely beating since "Sleepless in Seattle" and "When Harry Met Sally", writer-director Rob Reiner has got something for you. There may be nothing new in his formula, but the packaging provides a bit of light escapist variation on the inevitability of screen courtship.
Part of the variation is patterned from the notion of Dostoevsky (no less!) falling in love with his stenographer while writing his novella, "The Gambler," under deadline pressure from his publisher. Here, novelist Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) feels the heat from a team of loan shark scum Cuban flamenco dancers who backed him for a bit of gambling and now want their $100,000, or else. These sharp mugs know that the loan (at 200%!) will be repaid when Alex completes his book and gets his advance, but they think nothing of burning his computer to prove a point. So, Alex has to acquire the services of a stenographer. Dostoevsky, are you turning over?
But as movie formulas would have it, she returns for the scarf she left behind (Oh, Mr. Reiner and screen-scribes Jeremy Leven and Adam Scheinman, tsk, tsk) and, when she hears some more of his pleadings, winds up too empathetic to the struggling and endangered writer to turn away and goes to work. Taking his dictation, however, turns out to come at the price of running criticism, somewhat beyond the negotiated terms of her employment. As Alex dictates his story, he comes to value her judgments as much as her typing. Who would've suspected?
His novel becomes a part of the movie as he (as Adam Shipley), Emma (as Ylva, Elsa, Eldora and Anna—as the writer changes his mind about the character) and the glorious Polina Delacroix (Sophie Marceau) take on the roles of his imagined people. The outpouring of the story from the writer's mind, then, becomes a parallel universe for Alex and Emma, and a device for transmitting their growing affections.
Such an alliance and the way it functions is littered with corn, but I didn't let it bother me. My confession is that I'm likely to find attractive any story based so much on the process of writing—not that it can, or should be, taken as a serious study in that process, nor as a method of overcoming writer's block. It's possible to enjoy the movie, but the key is to view it uncritically. There is considerable charm and, once the intro is out of the way, some pretty good laughs pop up along the way.
If "Alex & Emma" is worth the price of admission it would be because of cast chemistry. It's perhaps an unfortunate cost of seeing a formulaic film that, while watching, you tend to imagine other people doing it. "Oh, she's doing a Meg Ryan/Anne Heche/Ellen Barkin/Goldie Hawn role. Oh, he's doing what Tom Hanks/Harrison Ford/Michael Douglas/Chris O'Donnell have had their chance to do." The thing is, though, there's not much wrong with this pair fulfilling this year's version of the romantic comedy.
Hudson can hold her own in a roomful of glamour with her winsome personality and expert timing. With much of the resistance-quashing qualities of her mother, Goldie Hawn, she's got her own lock on engaging playfulness and vulnerability, holding easy people like me captive. The smile's a killer. The bigger surprise, however, is Wilson, who is doing his best role to date, ably taking the reins of a charismatic guy in need of an understanding ally, commanding the screen with a sufficiently magnetic capability.
Marceau's exquisite looks stun the male eye, making perfect sense out of Alex's fixation. She's a natural beauty with all the talent necessary to put a camera lens entirely under her dominion.
In short, the movie works. Well, it does for me. And, I suspect, it will for anyone who isn't looking for Dostoevsky.
Jules Brenner has reviewed over 80 films a year since 2000. Check out the oldest and latest at his web site where he writes under the pen name, The Filmiliar Cineaste: http://variagate.com/movrevue.htm
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