starring Luke Wilson, Kate Hudson, Rob Reiner, Sophie Marceau
screenplay by Jeremy Leven
directed by Rob Reiner
by Walter Chaw We've been here with Rob Reiner before, the whimsical fantasy film manifesting in the pretty good (but pretty overrated) The Princess Bride (as well as the cheerfully awful North), while the romance between a prototypical thug and a difficult woman found shape in the Woody Allen film that everyone could agree on, When Harry Met Sally... (and the grotesquely unwatchable The Story of Us). Watching a Reiner film, then, at least post-'80s, is a little like playing Russian Roulette with a pair of eye-gouging forks--and, too often, playing to lose. Not so much an auteur as a bookmark and a warm body, Reiner is the Mantovani of movie directors, and the extent to which you like a tongue bath is a succinct barometer of how much you'll appreciate his later films. With that in mind, Alex & Emma is so free of conflict and originality that watching it is actually a little like watching good avant-garde cinema: Freed from the constraints of narrative, one enters something like a fugue state, where the images flit by on screen in the simulacrum of sense, eliciting meanings in ironic counterpoint to traditional significance.
Alex (Luke Wilson) is an author in trouble with the Cuban mafia in Boston (don't ask, it doesn't hurt as much if you don't ask) given thirty days by them and his editor (Reiner) to come up with a follow-up to his debut novel...or else. To that end, Alex enlists the aid of a stenographer, Emma (Kate Hudson), who happens to be a mouthy, opinionated, very-difficult-to-handle sort of blonde woman with a great smile (see also, other Reiner femmes: Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Annette Bening). That the two hate and mistrust one another initially is a matter of course; that they end up in love is also a matter of course--more, that there will be a late misunderstanding that will lead to a moment where the man makes some sort of broad gesture to regain the woman is, again, a matter of course. The ostensible twist this time around is that as Alex is writing his horrible book (think F. Scott Fitzgerald crossed with Rosamund Pilcher), and the film literalizes it in period dress with Hudson in a quartet (!) of horrific ethnic caricatures.
Certainly meant as a showcase for show-pony Hudson, Alex & Emma is perfunctory, rote, lockstep, obligatory, mechanical, on and on, and on and on--the sort of tedious romantic-comedy formula flick that gets trundled out a few times a year, generally directly opposite tedious boom-boom muscle-thons, to satisfy the hanky and elbow-clutching portion of the housewife-and-girlfriend demographic that gives housewives and girlfriends a bad name. Its inevitable modest success (which today means something in the $80-100M range) places it in theme and reproducibility in the company of other cookie-cutter flotsam like Maid in Manhattan, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and so on--inauspicious bedfellows, to say the least. Its inevitable modest success also guarantees, conservatively, at least two or three more movies exactly like it in the next six months: If you assemble it, they will come.
In truth, Alex & Emma is fairly painless in its artlessly manufactured way--utterly devoted to the status quo, it offends only in its fatuous cuteness and the sort of smug aura that generally radiates off Christopher Guest's stuff. (Remembering that Reiner and Guest collaborated on the best film of both, This is Spinal Tap.) Calling the picture a "disaster" would be misleading because Alex & Emma is so precise a distillation of genre cliché that it's at once dada and military. The relationship the film has with its audience is predatory host/hapless parasite, representing not only what's wrong with movies these days, but also how studios and directors like Reiner (and soul brother contemporaries Garry Marshall and Ron Howard) just keep getting away with it. Originally published: June 20, 2003.