ALEX & EMMA - DVD review

...sweet without being romantic, cute without being funny.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Maybe it was the title that killed it. Director Rob Reiner's 2003 romantic comedy "Alex & Emma" sounds a lot like the 2001 romantic comedy "Kate & Leopold." And it doesn't help that both movies sound a lot like "Nicholas and Alexandra." Or that "Alex & Emma" is set in two different time periods, and that "Kate & Leopold" is set in two time periods. It's no wonder audiences were confused.

Of course, maybe it's just a bad picture.

There was a time from 1984 to 1992 when Rob Reiner was on such a roll it seemed like he could do no wrong. Think of "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Sure Thing," "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally," "Misery," and "A Few Good Men." Then came the slide, big time: "North," "The American President," and "The Story of Us." In the last ten years, only "Ghosts of Mississippi" showed any serious promise. Now there's "Alex & Emma." What in the world happened to the poor fellow? Did he suddenly become dotty and lose all sense of discrimination when it came to picking good scripts? I hardly think so; no director purposely sets out to make a bad movie, Tom Green excepted. I'm guessing Reiner is just stuck with a run of bad luck and temporary poor judgment.

Anyway, about "Alex & Emma." It concerns the plight of a struggling novelist, Alex (played by Luke Wilson), with writer's block, who owes $100,000 to Cuban loan sharks and has one month to pay it back or they'll kill him. His publisher (played by Rob Reiner) will give him the money only if and when he produces the manuscript for a new book he's supposed to be working on. Because the loan sharks torch his computer, Alex hires a stenographer, Emma (played by Kate Hudson), to take dictation (never mind that he could have bought, borrowed, or rented another computer for the money he promises to pay her). And that's the setup: publish or perish in a very literal sense.

We know romantic comedies have a standard formula they must follow. The man and woman who eventually fall in love must never recognize they're falling in love until the last possible moment, while the audience must cheer them on and wait patiently for the inevitable climactic scene when they finally click. Since the formula has been worked to death over the years, the scriptwriter's job is to come up with ever more inventive ways to complicate matters. "Sleepless in Seattle" put the couple in opposite corners of the country while they were courting; "Kate & Leopold" used a couple from two different centuries; "Harold and Maude" used a couple from two very different age groups. The gimmick in "Alex & Emma" is that while Alex is dictating to Emma, we get to see the story he's writing played out on the screen, a story within the story that parallels Alex's own frustrated love life.

The story within the story is set in the 1920s and concerns a young writer named Adam (also played by Wilson), who takes a job as a tutor while trying to write the Great American Novel. He is to teach the children of a beautiful, glamorous, passionate, aristocratic, but quite impoverished widow named Polina Dellacroix (played by Sophie Marceau), who lives on the fanciful island of St. Charles, just off the coast of Maine. Alex describes the place as known for its "palatial mansions, manicured lawns, and exquisite gambling casino." Basically, it's "Gatsby" country. Adam falls instantly in love with the widow, who is also being courted by a Mr. John Shaw (David Paymer), and Adam simultaneously flirts with the Swedish maid, Ylva (also played by Hudson). Or is it the German maid, Ilsa, or the Spanish maid, Eldora, or the American maid, Anna? Alex can't quite make up his mind who this maid is going to be, presumably because he can't make up his mind what he thinks about Emma, the stenographer.

The movie goes back and forth between this fictional, romantic world filled with the very rich and the real world of Alex's dingy apartment. Somewhere in here, poor Emma gets more than a bit lost. The fictional world is by far the more interesting, but it is also the sillier and more incredible. The real-world setting is simply tedious. So, you get your choice: unbelievable or boring.

It's hard to so say who's at most fault for the movie's failure. Did writer Jeremy Leven turn in a sparkless script? Did director Rob Reiner fall asleep at the wheel? Or are the two leaden stars completely miscast? Certainly, there's never any chemistry that develops between Wilson and Hudson, which is somewhat surprising. I mean, both actors and the man who directs them come from successful show business families and know what they're doing. Reiner is the son of actor-director Carl Reiner; Wilson is the brother of actors Owen and Andrew Wilson; and Hudson is the daughter of Goldie Hawn. But the pair of actors on screen not only don't light the place up, they rather dim it. Wilson's hypochondriac Alex complains most of the time, and Hudson's straight-arrow Emma keeps criticizing and changing Alex's story. They are both more annoying than amusing and come across as dull and duller.

Like Alex's book, the movie's plot goes nowhere. It wanders hither and yon trying desperately to fill up the film's ninety-odd minutes of screen time. We can see from the outset that neither the real-life Alex nor the fictional Adam is easily going to recognize true love or readily give in to commitment, so the wait for his inescapable conversion seems ever the more endless. Emma merely takes up space along the way.

Cloris Leachman does a ten-second walk-on. She's the best part of the film.

Lovely, I'd go so far as to say there's mainly gorgeous picture quality in this 1.74:1 ratio anamorphic transfer. A fairly high bit rate provides deep, rich colors, smooth detail, and absolutely no grain, digital artifacts, or jittery lines. It's just a clean, clear image, perhaps a trifle soft and fuzzy around some edges but not enough to mention. Again, the maxim seems to be that the less one wants to watch the movie, the better its video is going to look. Dang.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is not called upon to do very much. It's quiet and well spread out among the three front speakers, but there is little about the frequency range, dynamics, or surround sound to speak of. The DD 5.1 efficiently and effectively reproduces the film's dialogue, but is called upon to do nothing more.

Not much here, I'm afraid. No use throwing good money after bad, I suppose. There is an audio commentary with star Luke Wilson and director Rob Reiner, and that's about it. Twenty-eight scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer complete the package, what little there is. Not even languages to help out, just English for the spoken-language choice and English for subtitles.

Parting Shots:
"Alex & Emma" is sweet without being romantic, cute without being funny. Even when Reiner has two different stories to work with, one inside the other, he can't do anything with them. Well, nobody stays down forever, and Reiner's got a lot of good years ahead of him. From here, he certainly has nowhere to go but up.


Film Value