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(2003) (Luke Wilson, Kate Hudson) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: An author suffering from writer's block hires a stenographer to help write his latest romance novel in just thirty days.
Alex Sheldon (LUKE WILSON) is an author with a sticky problem. Not only is he broke, but he also owes $100,000 to some Cuban mafia figures following some bad gambling choices. He does have a way to come up with the money - by delivering his next novel to Wirschafter (ROB REINER), his publisher - but a serious case of writer's block has stymied his effort.

When one of the mob thugs torches his laptop computer, Alex hires stenographer Emma Dinsmore (KATE HUDSON) to take down his dictation. She's initially reluctant to accept the job, especially when she learns that if Alex doesn't get the money in 30 days he'll be dead, but eventually agrees to the job.

Alex then slowly starts to reveal his novel about Adam Shipley (LUKE WILSON), a 1920s era writer who's been hired to tutor the children of Polina Delacroix (SOPHIE MARCEAU), a lovely French woman who's in dire financial straits. Unless her wealthy grandmother dies and leaves Polina her inheritance, she'll have to marry her wealthy suitor, John Shaw (DAVID PAYMER).

The only problem is that Adam is instantly smitten with Polina and tries to figure out how to compete with Shaw for her affection. Along the way, he also finds himself attracted to her au pair, who changes from Ylva to Elsa to Eldora and finally to Anna (all KATE HUDSON).

With time running out and Emma having no problem throwing in her two cents regarding every writing decision he makes, Alex must race to finish the novel, all while finding himself falling for Emma and vice-versa.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Having experienced writer's block - while penning papers, screenplays and now movie reviews - I know what a debilitating effect it can have on the creative process whenever it happens to strike. That said, I can't imagine what it must be like to have it while facing a pay or die deadline imposed by some mob figures who want to collect on a gambling debt.

Apparently, neither does Alex Sheldon, one half of the titular pair on display in "Alex & Emma," director Rob Reiner's latest romantic comedy. You see, after those mafia types torch his laptop, Alex doesn't react like you'd probably expect. Instead, he does the logical thing of hiring a stenographer - that would be where Emma comes in - to capture his story on a stenograph.

If that sounds a little contrived and/or odd to you, you're on to the first set of problems that bedevil this disappointing, boring and flat effort. Writer Jeremy Leven ("The Legend of Bagger Vance," "Don Juan DeMarco") apparently hasn't ever heard of borrowing someone else's laptop or conversely having the mob break the writer's fingers so that he needs the transcriber (among many other possibilities of getting the two main characters together).

He and Reiner ("The Story of Us," "When Harry Met Sally") apparently also haven't met a romantic comedy cliché they didn't dare discard lest they face the wrath of the genre's fan base. They've also unwisely chosen the parallel plot line device where the story alternates between the contemporary characters and the fictitious, period ones the writer has created.

The former means the film will naturally offer no surprises, while the latter gives the film a disjointed structure and feel that it never overcomes. Some such films - Reiner's own "The Princess Diaries" as well as the more recent "Possession" - manage to work. Many others, however, don't, including this one.

Unless there's a good or solid enough reason for both timeline stories to exist, one should usually be jettisoned, sacrificed or at least vastly shortened for the sake of the other. Here, the flashback story is a complete waste. It's plot of dual love triangles isn't remotely interesting, romantic or funny, and thus deadens the overall effort whenever it surfaces (which is quite often).

I understand that its developments parallel and/or foreshadow that of the real writer and his stenographer, but that connection is paper-thin at best and offers no surprises or anything of interest. In that regard, neither does the main plot. We're never allowed to connect with and/or care about either of the two main characters.

There's also never any doubt about what will happen or any sort of pleasure in watching them go through the standard romantic comedy motions or plot arc of bickering, becoming friends, then lovers and then breaking up, etc. The fact that Reiner repeatedly jumps back and forth between the stories doesn't help matters as neither gets the chance to build any sort of momentum or viewer interest.

I'm guessing that the "clever" hook is supposed to be that the past and present characters are played by the same people, namely Luke Wilson ("Old School," "The Royal Tenenbaums") and Kate Hudson ("How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "The Four Feathers"). Not only is that gambit not novel - think of "The Wizard of Oz," among many such films - but its momentarily cutesy charm quickly wears thin, particularly when Hudson plays the ever-changing au pair whose nationality and characteristics vary based on her creator's whim.

Such changes are supposed to be witty, but the filmmakers and/or their central characters never seem to have as much fun playing around with such changes as they could and should have. The possibilities of messing around with the fictitious story and its characters are seemingly endless, but Reiner and company never let loose with the material.

That also holds true for the rest of the film as well. The catalytic mob figures are really just an afterthought and only return once (although they also appear as other characters in a past segment) and the writer and stenographer never seem too pressured to meet their deadline (from a realistic or comedy standpoint). With a few script tweaks (okay, a lot of them), something worthwhile may have been salvaged from this boring and listless effort, but that's not the case.

As far as the supporting parts are concerned, Sophie Marceau ("The World is Not Enough," "Lost & Found") and David Paymer ("State and Main," "Bait") can't do much with their sketchily drawn characters, while Reiner occasionally shows up as the writer's publisher. In one scene, his character states that he likes the bittersweet conclusion of a fictitious romance story and I wondered if this film would have the guts to follow that path (although I knew it wasn't likely).

While the old Double-Mint twins used to say, "Double your pleasure, double your fun," there's nothing refreshing, engaging or interesting about either part of this dual-plotted romantic comedy. "Alex & Emma" isn't a horrible film, it's just flat, tedious and instantly forgettable and rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed June 16, 2003 / Posted June 20, 2003

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