When Alex met Emma he was a destitute writer. His words had left him, he was being hounded by loan sharks and the plaster on his ceiling was crumbling away. Then the lovely Emma came into his life and at the end of the month he had a 350-page novel plus $250,000. Sounds a bit too much like a fairy tale, doesn’t it, even for Hollywood? But this is based on a real-life episode of an actual writer — Fyodor Dostoevsky to be exact.
Yes, that grand master of Russian angst had been deep in gambling debts and the only way out was to churn out a novella in 30 days. The result was that the world got an autobiographical story called “The Gambler” and Dostoevsky fell in love with his stenographer. More than a century later, this piece of literary history has inspired director Rob Reiner to make a movie and call it “Alex and Emma.”
Despite its tortured Russian roots, “Alex and Emma” is feathery-light — no strain on the nerves, no pressure on the brain cells. One small gust of Siberian wind could turn the whole thing into dust. It’s hard to see anything Dostoevsky in this production, but it’s also hard to see Reiner — at least the one who directed “Stand by Me” and “When Harry Met Sally.” There’s very little fizz in the humor and the plot twists are about as subtle as a 14-wheeler charging down the freeway. Most of all, “Alex and Emma” suffers from formula overdose. When you consider that Reiner had practically invented the current love-story formula (boy and girl meet, they fight a lot, they part, they realize how much they need each other), “Alex and Emma” starts to seem like an exercise in irony. Or perhaps just excessive recycling.
It opens with Alex (Luke Wilson) about to be thrown out of his apartment window by two Cuban thugs who have come to collect a debt. He promises to pay up at the end of the month and they leave, after destroying his laptop containing the work-in-progress (total of two lines).
What now? Instead of borrowing a computer or subletting his apartment, Alex hires freelance stenographer Emma (Kate Hudson). The story trots patiently back and forth from the world Alex dictates to Emma (set against a resplendent summer house on a island off Massachusetts, circa 1924) and his Boston apartment where he and Emma bicker daily about how the story should go. In Alex’s novel, his alter ego, Adam (Wilson again), falls in love with the sexy French mistress of the house Polina (Sophie Marceau), but he’s also drawn to the sweet, down-home au pair Anna (Hudson again). And in the meantime, of course, he’s plagued by gambling debts and loan sharks. Pretty soon, Alex’s life and Alex’s novel become equally annoying — you just want the Cubans to come back and slap this guy (Alex or Adam or both) around, make him cry, make him bleed, anything to liven things up.
Next to Alex, Emma is a paragon of charm and common sense, striking just the right balance between fragile coquetry and solid capability. Why such a creature would fall for Alex is a mystery (unless Boston’s large gay population has something to do with it). Speaking of which, one of the more enjoyable aspects of “Alex and Emma” is the way the pair relate to their city, recalling the way Harry and Sally blended right into New York. It’s always been a pleasure to see how Reiner deploys and works his street and/or cityscape scenes. Even in the disastrous “The Story of Us,” things picked up perceptibly as soon as the characters got out of their house and got some fresh air. In “Alex and Emma,” he has the pair take an afternoon off to explore Boston, hit the tourist spots and walk in the Public Garden. When the action shifts to studio-shot sequences or Alex’s apartment (which is most of the time) the story stalls, bogs down and gets repetitive.
In the end, “Alex and Emma” wastes a whole lot of talent — Hudson and Wilson especially, but the likes of Marceau and David Paymer (who appears as her suitor) have far too few scenes, and those are burdened with halfhearted, unmemorable lines.
Romantic comedies usually rejuvenate the senses and perk you up, but “Alex and Emma” leaves you limp and out of batteries. Just writing the review makes me want to emit a few coughs and collapse on a sofa, so imagine the effect on Reiner (he did look creased and harried in a cameo role as Alex’s publisher). Maybe there’s more of Dostoevsky here than one thought.