Judging by his latest effort, "Alex and Emma," it appears director Rob Reiner's lost his timing. It's been almost a decade since he directed his last romantic comedy, "The American President" and it shows.
It's not so much that "Alex and Emma" is a bad flick. Rather, its execution is reminiscent of a big league golfer or baseball player who's temporarily lost his swing.
Virtually all the ingredients in the flick are big budget: cinematography, sets, costumes, and for you car nuts out there, some incredible pristine automobiles from the Gatsby era.
It has a respectable cast as well.
For the first time Luke Wilson (Alex) justifies his continuing screen presence. Reiner's camera draws our attention to Wilson's handsome virility and suddenly this comic relief actor is transformed into a latter day Carey Grant. (I'm not saying he has become another Grant; I'm saying he should be very careful in the roles he chooses in the short term for he can either remain someone we laugh at or become someone we laugh with.)
In "Alex and Emma" Wilson plays a writer forced to employ a stenographer following the immolation of his laptop by a couple of enraged Cuban gangsters. (Sure, it's the old enraged-Cuban-gangster plot, but it's a genre film for goodness sake. Its intent is not to break new ground but to reap abundant fruit from an established orchard.)
Apparently our boy borrowed heavily from these guys, his future to be determined by serendipity, greyhounds, and a mechanical bunny. Things didn't go as planned.
In establishing this plot point the film's writers attempt to inject some dramatic tension. Who in their right mind is going to believe there's any chance at all that these ?migr? capitalists are going to cap the film's leading man?
This aspect of the film is therefore irrelevant though the actors portraying Tony and Bobby (Chino XL and Lobo Sebastian) do their absolute best to have some fun with stereotyping. The same may be said regarding homophilia when witnessing their interpretation of a couple of sissy flamenco dancers.
Alex's laptop having been rendered toast by these ham-fisted Hispanics, our boy must call upon the comely but self-disciplined stenographer, Emma Dinsmore (Kate Hudson) to aid him in the completion of his manuscript.
The essence of propriety, Dinsmore stands in bold contrast to the exotic, alluring French woman (You know what they say about them!) Polina Delacroix. There is a love triangle at the heart of this piece and the burning question is, for whom shall our boy fall, Emma or Paulina?
Suffice it to say this plot point has as much dramatic tension as the enraged-Cuban-gangster bit. But the players are game and it is a comedy after all.
Hudson, an actor who is only beginning to discover the breadth of her abilities, is still in the process of honing her craft. It is not surprising, therefore, that she has yet to master restraint. Unfortunately, during those moments when she abandons discrimination for shtick we are distracted from the continuum of the film. This is bad.
Be that as it may, Emma has been hired by Alex to take dictation and it is during these moments that the film's director, Reiner, adds a whimsical and imaginative touch. Alex's literary imaginings are rendered visual through a transposition to a period piece.
In these, Hudson portrays a number of charming characters of various nationality. It is primarily during these imaginary sequences that Reiner's atypical errors in judgment surface. For a romantic comedy to work perfectly we have to accept the reality of the characters; they have to be perceived as real people.
Hudson's reversions to camp silliness should have been fettered or edited by Reiner. She's very good at this (She's got a lot of Goldie in her) but ultimately it robs the film of its verisimilitude.
(It is worth noting that Rip Taylor, an absolute master of camp silliness, demonstrates precisely the restraint Hudson lacks. Alert the media!)
Real people don't behave the way Hudson's characters sometimes do but the locus of the film is the tribulations of love, a very real phenomenon. We can't invest in characters one moment and then abandon them to whimsy the next.
On the other hand, to the director's and Hudson's credit, Emma is also realized as a woman capable of maintaining her integrity while willingly immersing herself in love's perilous caprice. She is capable of risking all, failing, and moving on, her psyche and self-esteem intact.
The movie has lots of admirable stuff; it's a timing and judgment thing that keeps it from succeeding.
Reiner's lack of judgment allows some particularly jejune writing to be included in the final cut. Bad enough we have to sit through Alex's philological musings on the phrase "paying through the nose" once, but twice!
There are romantic comedies that are masterworks of the genre and may be viewed repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. Though "Alex and Emma" is hardly one of these, one day you will see it on the shelves of the rent-o-rama and you should rent it. You will enjoy it once, not twice.
Celluloid memories: Rob Reiner has had his moments in the past but when it comes to timeless romantic comedies let's have a look at the work of the masters. Start with Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka" (1939) starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, and Bela Lugosi. Billy Wilder wrote the script for this story of a Russian agent (Garbo) in Paris and the temptations seducing her. Now that you're all warm and fuzzy, find a copy of George Cukor's "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) starring Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and James Stewart. Grant's her ex and Stewart's in love with her. It's a gem. Finally, though not as highly stylized as the latter, "Roman Holiday" (1953), a classic directed by William Wyler, is guaranteed to win your undying affection. It stars Audrey Hepburn as a princess who yearns to escape her regimented life. Gregory Peck plays the expatriate American reporter into whose arms she falls. Hepburn is absolutely charming.