The romantic comedy may be the most malleable genre in cinema, and in “Alchemy” it embraces both the computer age and post-feminist liberation. The result is a mix of techno-double talk and ’30s-style comedy whose sense of direction may be straight out of television, but whose charm — as in so many screwball stories — is all about its female star. If “Alchemy” were a chocolate-chip cookie, the chip would be co-star Sarah Chalke, whose natural gift for comedy and ability to straddle female stereotypes lifts this pic way above its game. Femme auds should give the film a brief theatrical run before it finds sweeter home on DVD and TV.
Malcolm Downey (Tom Cavanaugh of TV “Ed” fame), an unlikely-to-be-tenured college instructor in computer science, has developed a computer with emotions. He’d surely get tenure if he could publish an academic paper on his invention. But since his research isn’t quite ready and he’s anxious to be published, he takes the story of his computer to a journal with much lower stands — the aptly titled Belladonna magazine, where editor Jane Rosenthal (Nadia Dajani) proposes a contest to see if a woman will fall in love with a man or with the computer.
Campus heartthrob, Dr. Troy Rollins (James Barbour) faces off against Malcolm’s computer, but Malcolm has to don a disguise and recite the computer’s dialogue, the rules of the game are sloppy and the premise dissolves into mush.
Where the film goes right is with Chalke, whose Samantha Rose is a smart woman, but perhaps a smarter character. In an earlier era, she might have been played by Joan Blondell or Eve Arden, but she certainly wouldn’t have been the female lead. (She never, for example, would have been played by Celeste Holm, who has a small role as Malcolm’s grandmother.)
In “Alchemy,” Samantha doesn’t have to pay a price for liking sex, being unafraid of men and knowing her own mind. Samantha momentarily seems dim when she can’t recognize Malcolm behind a phony beard and phonier French accent, but that’s the least of “Alchemy’s” problems. And Chalke is chief among its assets.
Love is discussed and dissected in the film, but it reaches the heights of implausibility when no responsible woman character takes exception to the idea that a woman might fall in love with a computer. “Alchemy” is the kind of movie in which everyone winks and nudges each other but don’t seem to realize that the audience can see for itself.