Originally created 06/20/03

At the Movies: 'Alex & Emma'



"Alex & Emma" is pretty much what it looks like: "When Harry Met Sally ..." meets "Adaptation," though this harmless, utterly forgettable romantic comedy from director Rob Reiner lacks the wit of the former and the intensity of the latter.

What's left are Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, who are likable individually but lacking chemistry together as a writer on deadline and the stenographer he hires to help him finish his novel.

But then again, they never had much of a chance; Reiner flip-flops so frequently between the present-day writing process and the novel's Gatsbyesque 1920s setting, it's hard to care about their characters' inevitable budding romance.

From watching this alone, you'd never know that Reiner is the same person who mastered the genre with 1989's "When Harry Met Sally ..." besides bringing us the comic genius of "This Is Spinal Tap," the charm of "The Princess Bride" and the wonder of "Stand by Me."

You'd also never know that Wilson's character, Alex Sheldon, must complete his book in 30 days or face the wrath of the Cuban loan sharks to whom he owes $100,000 in gambling debts. He makes vague, hypochondriacal references to feeling nauseated, but Wilson plays him in such a low-key fashion, he barely breaks a sweat.

Say what you will about "Adaptation" being too cute and knowing for its own good - it vividly depicted what's it like to be held in the vise of writer's block with a deadline looming.

After thugs bust into his ramshackle Boston loft and burn his laptop - which contained the lone sentence he'd written - Alex hires stenographer Emma Dinsmore (Hudson) to take dictation. But uppity Emma ultimately becomes the dictator, questioning every word in his story - which, naturally, parallels his own life.

Set on a fictional New England island, the novel follows romantic young writer Adam Shipley (also Wilson) during the summer as he tutors the children of French sophisticate Polina Delacroix (Sophie Marceau). While Adam falls obsessively in love with the glamorous Polina, he also forms a more down-to-earth bond with the family's au pair (also Hudson).

But the au pair character keeps changing because Alex can't decide on her nationality. First she's Ylva from Sweden, then Elsa from Germany, then Eldora from Spain, until he finally settles on calling her Anna and having her come from Philadelphia - a version that's closest in spirit to Emma.

The various incarnations give Hudson a chance to ham it up with accents and over-the-top costumes, but the gag gets repetitive. (In another recurring joke that isn't all that funny the first time, things keep getting spilled in Adam's lap in the book scenes, from egg salad to scalding hot water.)

We know it's only a matter of time before the fictional Adam and Anna will fall for each other, just as the real-life Alex and Emma will. But "Alex & Emma" falls into the same trap as last year's "Possession," the Neil LaBute film starring Gwyneth Paltrow: It jumps back and forth in time so much, it doesn't give us a chance to stick around and connect with the characters.

So when Emma realizes that Alex wasn't nearly as scatterbrained and useless as she thought he was, the moment feels fleeting and has no resonance.

The whole exercise is lightweight, but no matter - Wilson appears next in two big summer movies, the "Charlie's Angels" and "Legally Blonde" sequels. And Hudson, hot off the romantic comedy "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" with Matthew McConaughey, co-stars in the upcoming Merchant Ivory film "Le Divorce."

This is just a chapter in a book that they - and we - can close and forget.

"Alex & Emma," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for sexual content and some language. Running time: 93 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.