In Rob Reiner’s disposa-romantic comedy, Alex & Emma, a writer dictates his new novel to a stenographer. Accordingly, we see that story onscreen, with the principal characters played by him and the stenographer. As they squabble over various plot points, the story changes to reflect their discussions.
The press notes for Alex & Emma state, “Director/producer Rob Reiner has always been an innovator, pushing the boundaries of any genre he touches … Reiner is always on the lookout for projects that offer something new for his audience, and when he first read Jeremy Leven’s script for Alex & Emma, he was immediately struck by its imaginative take on the traditional romantic comedy.”
Apparently, Reiner never saw The Carol Burnett Show, which used the same idea for various comedy sketches over a 10-year period. If he considers the screenplay for this trifle to be boundary pushing, then I should send him a copy of this essay. “Oh my God, look at this,” he’ll exclaim. “He actually incorporated some of the press notes into his review. This man is so innovative. I shall hire him to write the screenplay for my next romantic comedy, When Harry Divorced Sally and Met Her Again!”
But I digress. Loosely based on “The Gambler,” an autobiographical short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alex & Emma stars Luke Wilson as author Alex Sheldon, a dog-racing addict who must repay $100,000 to a loan shark in 30 days or forfeit his life to a pair of goons (Chino XL, Lobo Sebastian). Alex’s publisher (Reiner) will give him the money, but only after he finishes his latest romantic novel. Needless to say, Alex has writer’s block.
After the over-enthusiastic thugs threaten Alex by destroying his laptop computer (Good thinking, boys!), he convinces very reluctant stenographer Emma Dinsmore (Kate Hudson) to work with him on his novel about “the powerlessness of being in love.” The rest of the film hops back and forth between shots of Alex and Emma bickering and scenes from the novel, a fussy piece of business set in the 1920s on an upscale island community off the American northeast, with Wilson, Hudson and other cast members playing the characters.
Although the film is only 95 minutes long, it feels much longer. Waiting for the couple to end up exactly where you know they will end up grows tedious, especially given the herky-jerky nature of the script, which lurches rather than flows. Sure, Alex and Emma fall in love, but we never really see it happening. Instead, we just hear them verbally acknowledging the fact that they are growing closer. There are no sparks here, merely statements.
As for the cuts to the evolving novel, suffice to say that the accents are broad and that the vignettes come off like tepid sketches on a subpar TV show.
One last thought: While Alex aggressively works on earning the money to save his life, he at no point addresses his compulsive gambling problem. So, as you romantics exit the theater, ask yourself what Alex will do the next time he feels the urge to head for the track. Gee, that idea isn’t particularly whimsical, is it?