Self-described “brilliant novelist” Alex (Luke Wilson) has writer’s block. When he first appears in Alex & Emma, he’s seated in his Boston loft apartment, plinking out a scant few words on his laptop: “Adam Shipley,” he plinks, “was an ordinary man.” Or no. For poor Adam, life was “confusing.” And with that, Alex’s erupts, as a pair of big-necked, thick-accented goons ostensibly representing the “Cuban Mafia” (one played by hiphop artist Chino XL, the other by Lobo Sebastian) arrive on his doorstep and demand payment.
These goons serve as “motivation,” simple and plain. And, like a lot of media thugs, they appear to be inspired by the Vanilla Ice story wherein Suge Knight dangles him from his feet from a balcony. And so, they do exactly this to Alex, who in turn does what he must: he begs for his life, promising to get them their money — $100,000 — in 30 days, by completing his new manuscript and being paid by his publisher (Rob Reiner). The goons, being goons, proceed to do exactly what makes the least sense if they want to get their money: they burn his laptop.
After all this incoherent (and mostly unpredictable) excitement in its first six minutes, Reiner’s romantic comedy descends almost immediately into foreseeable tedium. Reportedly inspired by Dostoevsky’s autobiographical short story, “The Gambler,” the film uses Alex’s dog-track losses and thugs a-looming as ludicrous means to get him to hire a stenographer, to take his dictated book. This would be Emma (Kate Hudson in pert, courtroom-ready suits and strangely dreary hair), who believes she’s been assigned by her agency to service a law firm. Peering at the mussy apartment from the door, she throws back her shoulders and declares, “This doesn’t look like a law office. It doesn’t even look like a nice place to live.” Hmmmph: she might as well be stamping her little foot.
Uncowed by such display of spleen, Alex woos his would-be savior by fainting dead away at her feet. In another movie, this might have been a character trait that was going somewhere; in this one, he faints, wakes up, and that’s the end of it. Even more annoying, Emma takes it as a sign that this wayward boy needs looking after. She doesn’t say as much, but neither is there a decent explanation for why she decides to take this preposterous job. And gee, as soon as she threatens to leave, his muse smiles down on him. So, he begins: “Adam Shipley had given up on love. Art was to be his mistress…”
The rest of Alex & Emma is more or less Alex’s wholly un-artful and hackneyed novel, as he tells it and Emma challenges it or encourages it (sometimes both at the same time). It’s not quite the literary conceit that it sounds: no clever insinuations or metaphors here. What you see is pretty much what you get: Alex plays his own idealized writer hero, Adam, circa 1924. He wears Gatsby-ish white suits and works on some made-up Euro island as a tutor for the two personality-less children of the lovely Polina (Sophie Marceau), she of the “ample bosom” and lightweight summer dresses. In need of funds in order to maintain her customary life of leisure, Polina is engaged to the wealthy and awkwardly mustachioed John Shaw (David Paymer). He would be what they call an “obstacle” in the writing biz. And so, the talented David Paymer is relegated to speaking about four lines all told.
The film cuts back and forth between the fictional island and the nonfictional apartment, as Emma initially objects to Alex’s careless objectification of his leading lady (all easy target stuff). Gradually — very too gradually, as this movie lasts about 40 minutes longer than it needs to — she becomes immersed in the tale, worrying that Alex is taking advantage of Polina, and then worrying that she’s not the right woman for him when he introduces Polina’s au pair. Variously named Ylva, Elsa, Eldora, and Anna (and played by Hudson each time), because Alex can’t figure out which “nationality” (or hairstyle) grants her the most “edge,” the au pair is by turns Swedish, German, Spanish — indicated by accents that all sound like they’ve been ground through lawnmowers — and finally, a charming Yank with a flapper’s bob. Aha, Anna has Emma’s drab hair color and sweet smile, indicating that she is the perfect match for Adam, or Alex, or someone.
The decision for Adam takes the form of Polina the sex goddess or Emma the amiable soul mate, this last indicated by the most egregious montage, where they walk through the park, peruse book vendors, ride a boat on the river, all under a Norah Jones track — it’s almost enough to make you want to return to the novel, which is by now painfully ridiculous). Alex, being the ignorant sort that he is, needs some prodding and even a little crisis before he can make the right choice, for his protagonist and for himself. Emma, being the enabling sort that she is, earnestly coaxes his self-discovery, all the while designing to remake him in the image she prefers. Or rather, the image he would prefer she prefers. For it is his fantasy, of course, into which the film and Emma’s seeming interests devolve.
With a script credited to Jeremy Leven (The Legend of Bagger Vance) and polished by Reiner, Alex & Emma takes writer’s block as a point of departure. But unlike the more compelling recent fantasies spun from such a beginning — say, Barton Fink or Adaptation — it dawdles and dwindles, eventually ending up where it starts: blocked.