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Film review: Rob Reiner's 'Alex & Emma'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   June 19, 2003 at 12:21 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, June 19 (UPI) -- The tepid romantic comedy "Alex & Emma" pairs Kate Hudson, the daughter of Goldie Hawn and quasi-stepdaughter of Kurt Russell, with Luke Wilson, the brother of comic leading man Owen Wilson. Rob Reiner, the son of venerable funnyman Carl Reiner, directed it. Jeremy Leven's script was revised by Reiner and by Adam and Andrew Scheinman, one of modern Hollywood's innumerable screenwriting brother acts.

Notice a pattern?

In his important new book, "In Praise of Nepotism," my friend Adam Bellow describes the upsurge of dynasticism in dozens of professions, with Hollywood in the lead. "In the 1960s and 1970s there were dozens of second-generation actors," Bellow writes. "Today, there are hundreds -- far too many to list ... Family ties also prevail among producers, directors, and writers."

My view of nepotism is more jaundiced than Adam's, though, perhaps because his dad is Nobel Laureate novelist Saul Bellow, while mine is stress engineer Ernie Sailer.

For example, Kate Hudson doesn't quite have the bone structure to be a big screen leading lady. Yet, because of her mother's clout, she got the opportunity to make it big (such as in her Oscar-nominated turn in 2000's "Almost Famous") at that very young age when just about anybody looks good. The downside is that now, at only 24-years-old, her looks are already fading.

With an adequate script and crisper editing, that wouldn't matter much, but "Alex & Emma" gives you way too much time to sit there in the dark and ponder such crass questions as, "What is it that's not exactly right about her face?"

Luke Wilson's rugged, friendly face is fine, unlike that of his famously broken-nosed brother Owen (of "Shanghai Knights"), but I couldn't help thinking how much funnier Owen would have been in this semi-intentionally preposterous film.

I have to admit, though, that Reiner's output from 1984's "This Is Spinal Tap" through 1992's "A Few Good Men" -- seven straight quality movies in almost as many different genres -- makes a strong case for family connections greasing the skids into the movie business.

But what's happened to Reiner since? Perhaps his batting average has plummeted during the last decade because the once unhappy divorced man of the 1980s has finally achieved an admirable balance in his life. He now devotes ample time to his second marriage, children, charitable and political interests, and even shows up now and then to direct movies, as long as they don't require more than an eight-hour day.

I realize Reiner is a busy, important man who might run for governor of California, perhaps against Arnold Schwarzenegger. But this half-baked excuse for a movie could have used another 1,000 hours of Reiner's precious time.

The plot of "Alex & Emma" was inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky, of all people. Facing financial ruin, in October 1866 Dostoevsky was down to a mere 30 days to write an entire novel. In desperation, he hired a stenographer, dictated the semi-autobiographical "The Gambler" to her, and proposed marriage. They lived happily ever after ... except for the epileptic fit when he screamed for hours during their wedding reception and other turmoil and misery of downright Dostoevskyan proportions.

Like a recent Hungarian version of "The Gambler," "Alex & Emma" melds the tale of the novelist and his stenographer with the story-within-a-story that he narrates to her. This interplay of author and plot in parallel universes is a favorite device of high bandwidth screenwriters like Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love") and Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation"), but here, lots of potential connections are left unmade, and both plotlines wind up unengagingly thin.

The novel in "Alex & Emma" has been moved from Dostoevsky's Roulettenberg to a 1920s WASP summer island. The story's supposed to evoke "The Great Gatsby," but it more closely resembles something F. Scott Fitzgerald might have dashed off for the Saturday Evening Post when his bootlegger threatened to cut off his supply of bathtub gin.

It's natural to wonder how Wilson, an actor best known for the aging frat boy comedy "Old School," does in a dual role based on Dostoevsky and his protagonist Alexei, but don't bother. The script is so unchallenging that Wilson just acts like an aging frat boy with a bigger vocabulary. And Hudson's portrayal of five semi-different characters won't make anybody forget Alec Guinness in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" or Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove."

The biggest single problem with "Alex & Emma" is the four male writers' obvious contempt for their female target audience. You can imagine them story-conferencing: "Sure, we know it's about Dostoevsky, but we've got to dumb it down for the ladies -- way down."

In contrast, Reiner's 1989 yuppie romantic comedy "When Harry Met Sally..." is a near-classic because it was written by a smart woman, Nora Ephron, for smart women.


Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some language.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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