“Alex & Emma” is a desperately slight romantic comedy marked by contrived romance and little comedy. A period-jumping tale of a struggling writer who finds his fictional work and his heart impacted by the stenographer to whom he dictates his novel, this surprise-free trifle belongs to the ever-popular breed of love stories in which two people obviously meant for one another don’t face up to the fact until the end. This, coupled with an ad campaign that recalls “Sleepless in Seattle” and lack of any other contempo romances in a marketplace overwhelmed by heavy-ammo guy pix, means this flyweight Warner Bros. release has a chance to rack up some sweet femme-driven B.O. in the busy midsummer period.
Playing it safe with an eye to making some “When Harry Met Sally”-like waves after his unloved last two features, “The Story of Us” and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” director Rob Reiner has turned out a confection as glossy as it is predictable. Roughly based on the circumstances of Dostoevsky’s writing of his novella “The Gambler,” which was composed in 30 days under intense pressure from his publisher, during which time the author fell in love with his stenographer, script by Jeremy Leven (“Don Juan DeMarco”) begins with young novelist Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) being dangled out the window of his Boston loft by two Cuban gangsters who tell him he has 30 days to pay off his $100,000 gambling debt.
Despite his lack of an idea for his new tome, Alex, incredibly, already has a deal in place that will pay him even more than that upon delivery of the manuscript, but his publisher (Reiner) won’t advance him anything until he has the book in hand. His laptop barbecued by the thugs, Alex even more incredibly induces legal stenographer Emma Dinsmore (Kate Hudson) to take dictation from him for the month on spec.
Whatever else one can say about “Alex & Emma,” it is the least credible portrait of a writer working on heavy deadline to have appeared onscreen in living memory. Despite the convincing incentive to overcome the writer’s block or procrastination with which he’s recently been afflicted, Alex, whose previous book was entitled “Love Is Always Having to Say You’re Sorry,” maintains a mild, laidback demeanor throughout, as if he scarcely had a care in the world. Whether due to the script, direction or Wilson’s relaxed performance, there is no urgency whatever to Alex’s predicament, and film would have benefited had Reiner at least invested the central situation with some suspense.
As it is, pic mostly consists of Alex and Emma sitting around the former’s dingy digs (which look quite respectable, and very back-lot, from the outside), as Alex gradually spins a 1924-set tale of Adam Shipley, a young writer much like himself (and also played by Wilson) working as a tutor to the children of a beautiful French woman, Polina Delacroix (Sophie Marceau), who is summering on an island along the coast of Maine. Accustomed to the high life but short on funds, Polina looks destined to marry unprepossessing moneybags John Shaw (David Paymer), but Adam becomes increasingly infatuated with the flirtatious vixen the more she toys with him.
Main running gag of the opulently appointed “fictional” story strand is the appearance of Hudson as a succession of au pairs. After trying on different accents and outfits as Ylva the Swede, Elsa the German and Eldora the Spaniard, Hudson settles in as Emma from Philadelphia and here, just as with Emma back in present-day Boston, it’s just a matter of time until Adam/Alex wakes up to the charms of the young lady who’s been right there for him all along.
Minor laughs stem from Emma’s suggestions and modifications to Alex’s writing, which briefly veers into gambling territory but mostly concerns Adam’s obsession with Polina, played with glamorous hauteur by the ever-sexy Marceau. But the period scenes, often bathed in brilliant sunlight, have a brittle feel, while the modern section lacks the basic credibility needed to invest any interest or emotion in them.
With Wilson providing little energy, the burden falls on Hudson to carry the picture, and she fights an uphill battle to enliven things without resorting entirely to tricks. Thesp is trapped by the overwhelming artificiality of the enterprise, but gives it a little zip no one else sees fit to provide.
Lavishly decked out period scenes consciously evoke a “Gatsby”-like ambiance, especially in Shay Cunliffe’s pristine costumes, and contrast strongly with Alex’s grubby apartment. Music is cutesy.