Rob Reiner makes fleeting appearances in his new movie, “Alex & Emma,” as the benevolent publisher awaiting a second novel
from Luke Wilson, cast as a desperate author named Alex Sheldon. Eventually, a check for $125,000 is autographed by Mr. Reiner to compensate the hero for what seems a remarkably feeble effort.
The plot insists that we witness tentative scenes from Alex’s work in progress, which never seems to be shaping up in ways that would justify such bounty. On the contrary, it would appear to be a shambles in progress, not unlike the movie that encases it.
Supposedly, Alex has written a successful first book, “Love Is Always Having to Say You’re Sorry,” a title that suggests it must have been penned 30-plus years ago, in the immediate aftermath of “Love Story.” A foolish gambler, Alex is in debt to Boston loan sharks when we meet him, vainly attempting to hide from a pair of comical Cuban toughs in his own apartment. A manuscript is due in 30 days, and he needs $100,000 to appease a mob creditor. Turning the problem into a clever and winning entertainment proves too much for Mr. Reiner and his collaborators.
Hoping to hasten the process of invention, Alex hires a stenographer named Emma Dinsmore, likably embodied by Kate Hudson, the movie’s only tangible asset, and sets about fabricating a romance novel with a 1920s setting before his deadline runs out.
Borrowing a vintage device from the French romantic comedy “Holiday for Henrietta,” remade by Hollywood as “Paris When It Sizzles,” the new film interweaves episodes from the manuscript with the budding “real” relationship of Alex and Emma, who start to fall in love after weathering a rough get-acquainted period.
The co-stars appear as equivalent characters in the scenes Alex is dictating to Emma, who endears herself at an early stage by responding to his lame ideas with literal-minded but bracing incredulity. Nothing in the conception flatters the hero more than falling for the heroine, whose value far exceeds the amounts Mr. Reiner’s character seems prepared to squander on hapless, mercenary writers.
The movie is most effective when the action stays in the present long enough to validate a growing affection between Alex and Emma. When the tone accentuates sincerity and tenderness, the rapport between Mr. Wilson and Miss Hudson also becomes a decent excuse for indulging an implausible story.
More literal-minded than he realizes, Alex is projecting his own troubles and preoccupations into the manuscript. His fictional protagonist, Adam Shipley, also impersonated by Mr. Wilson, is hired as the tutor to a little boy in a wealthy household. While smitten with his employer, Polina Delacroix (what a name), portrayed by Sophie Marceau, the susceptible teacher encounters a quartet of housemaids who resemble Emma in rewritten national guises, from Swedish to German to Spanish to American. Miss Hudson gets her best opportunities as the German, Elsa, who benefits from some irresistibly silly puns with a Germanic tilt.
The Adam masquerade does little to stimulate untapped comic versatility in Mr. Wilson. In fact, things get excruciating when he’s supposed to fake an impromptu flamenco dance. The diffidence that seemed appealing in “Home Fries” opposite Drew Barrymore and in “Committed” opposite Heather Graham is beginning to curdle a bit in “Alex & Emma,” but the blame may rest with the roles he’s obliged to play. Alex and Adam are a dumb and dumber set of dual roles.
Miss Hudson’s promise, however, receives renewed confirmation even as the movie misfires and wilts around her. To the extent that this gauche romantic comedy can plead for mercy, it’s Kate Hudson who justifies the plea.
TITLE: “Alex & Emma”
RATING: PG (Occasional sexual vulgarity, candor or innuendo; facetious threats of violence)
CREDITS: Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by Jeremy Leven.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS