The first dumb thing Emma says in “Alex & Emma” is when she explains why she always reads the last page of a book before committing to the entire thing: “If I like the ending, I know I’ll like getting to it.”
Bullcrap. The endings of romantic comedies are always completely likeable – the two people who belong together wind up together – but a lot of these films are quite unenjoyable anyway. In fact, the opposite of Emma’s philosophy holds true with rom-coms. The ending, predictably sunny from the first reel, is irrelevant. What makes or breaks it is the journey. And “Alex & Emma” is broken.
Emma is played by Kate Hudson, who is the new Meg Ryan. I don’t mean she has merely assumed Meg Ryan’s duties as America’s romantic-comedy sweetheart; I mean she has actually BECOME Meg Ryan. If you go to Meg Ryan’s house, you will not find her. Her family’s like, “She was here, and then she was in ‘Kate & Leopold,’ and then she was gone. We’re stymied.”
Anyway, Kate/Meg plays Emma Dinsmore, a stenographer hired by Boston author Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) to take dictation on his sophomore novel. The catch? He only has 30 days to write the book from scratch, get it to his publisher and get paid, or else Cuban loan sharks will kill him. (They have already destroyed his laptop, which is why he needs the stenographer.)
So the work is intensive, and in theory, Alex and Emma fall in love in the process, even as they butt heads over Alex’s narrative choices. Meanwhile, we see the book itself — a romance set on an island off the coast of Maine in the 1920s – unfold, the central characters clearly based on Alex’s real life, himself and Emma included. Here is where Kate/Meg gets to play four different incarnations of the same character as Alex struggles to figure out the character’s correct persona. And guess what: Three of the versions have wacky accents! We get to hear Kate/Meg do Swedish, German and Spanish dialects, all of them bad, none of them funny. (A lesson I have learned: When a movie has an actor playing multiple characters, and the trailer plays up that fact by saying, “starring Joe Actor … and Joe Actor!,” you are in for a bad movie.)
As pitiful as it is to watch a bad movie about someone writing a bad book, it is even more pitiful to see a genuinely talented director like Rob Reiner doing such lackluster work. Meathead’s previous films include “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Stand by Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President” — good movies, all, or at least passably entertaining ones. What did he see in this story, which he co-wrote with three other men, that made him think it would have the kind of spark necessary for a rom-com to work?
It is curious that even as Alex frets over what kind of conflict to have in his book, the film has forgotten to include one for Alex. Seventy-eight of the film’s 93 minutes have gone by before there is any hint that Alex WON’T wind up with Emma, leaving 15 minutes for him to fix things and wind up with her anyway.
In the meantime, we are subjected to perfunctory examples of how Alex and Emma are allegedly falling in love: Her perky sternness gives way to compassion; his geeky verboseness gives way to longing gazes; you get the idea. But why are we watching it? It reminds me of the Monty Python “Novel Writing” sketch, in which an audience watches a man write a book, live, complete with a play-by-play announcer. That sketch is funny for precisely the reason “Alex & Emma” is boring: We’re watching a guy WRITE A BOOK!
Two actors bursting with charisma and style might have been able to make this generic stuff work, though I still doubt it. The exceedingly bland and Wilson and homogenized Kate/Meg, however, are far beneath the task. Top to bottom, this is made from the Romantic Comedy Template, right down to the inclusion of Norah Jones on the soundtrack. The problem is, it’s just the template, with most of the blanks left unfilled.
D (1 hr., 33 min.; )