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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Review

Alex and Emma


Alex and Emma

After director Rob Reiner bombed with his last two films--1996's Ghosts of Mississippi and 1999's The Story of Us--he returns to familiar territory with Alex and Emma, a delightful romantic comedy that borrows heavily from two of his biggest hits, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally.

The premise is more than a bit flimsy, but the great screwball romances have never held much water anyway, depending mostly on the chemistry generated by the two leads. The biggest surprise in Alex and Emma is that its stars generate some witty repartee as well as a few sparks. Luke Wilson is Alex Sheldon, a scribe with such a major case of writer's block that not even death threats from the loan sharks he owes $100,000 to can inspire him to produce. With his computer trashed and a 30-day deadline, he hires stenographer Emma Densmore (Kate Hudson) to take down his next novel as he dictates. As Alex weaves his tale, we are whisked away to 1920s Maine, where the story comes to life before our eyes. Of course, Alex inserts himself as the hero of the novel, Adam Shipley, a penniless tutor who falls for Polina (Sophie Marceau), a French socialite accustomed to the high life. And where does Emma pop up in the story? As an au pair whose nationality Alex keeps changing as he struggles to create a character true to her nature.

The film gets off to a quick start and maintains a brisk pace as Reiner takes us from Alex's squalid apartment to his idealized vision of the '20s. We eagerly await the switches back and forth from these parallel worlds, in which Alex's sometimes amusing, sometimes moving feelings for Emma slowly develop. As she challenges his views on life and love, Alex's novel shifts course. Life begins imitating art and the author ends up acting in ways he never anticipated.

Wilson has always been a likable performer but never an actor with any range. Yet his low-key demeanor is put to good use here, as he embodies Alex's charming lack of confidence. Hudson is quite good too, finally giving a performance that's without affectation. Though she's able to ham it up a bit as various characters in Alex's book, her Emma is assured and grounded. We come to see why Alex would be so smitten with her.

Some might object to the film's sudden opening and abrupt ending. But I welcomed Reiner's economic narrative style. With romantic comedies, the initial misunderstanding between lovers and their ultimate makeup are givens. What matters is the journey between these points. Thanks to Wilson and Hudson, and Reiner's sure hand with the material, Alex and Emma take a fresh walk down a well-worn road.

(Running time 1:34, rated PG-13)
Grade B

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