There was a time when romantic comedies were just that. Love stories that were funny and here I’m thinking along the lines of BRINGING UP BABY, which may be the most glorious example of that genre, not to mention its sub-genre, the screwball comedy. A triple threat. Even THE FRONT PAGE, the Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell version, of course, succeeded as a comedy and a romance, even with the whole death row subplot.
And so it was for the first 20 minutes or so of ALEX & EMMA that my heart skipped a beat and I dared to be lulled, despite by jaded reviewing heart, into the expectation that this would be a love story with laughs. Alas, as with so many other flicks of this type, too numerous to be named here, ALEX & EMMA wants it both ways, to tickle our funny bone while tugging on our heartstrings. And, as with those other examples far too numerous to be mentioned here, it fails.
Not that there aren’t a few laughs early on. Kate Hudson, who seems to be zeroing in on a role that merits her talents, and Luke Wilson soar above the material that they’re handed and walk away from the flick’s devolution into a saccharine puddle with their self-respect intact. Hudson as Emma, sloe-eyed and prim in a grey suit is a perfect foil to the happily haphazard Wilson as Alex. She’s a stenographer hired to take Alex’s dictation. Hes a successful author threatened by a loan shark’s collection agents who have already burned his laptop, and threaten worse to his person. His only way out is to finish his next book in thirty days, get a check from his publisher, pay the loan sharks, and resume a life of haphazard happiness. At first it all clicks together so well, she with the cogent commentary on the tritely overwrought romance he’s dictating and he forging on despite the critical onslaught with a look that is only a few rungs above hopeless on the oblivious ladder. Then it happens, they’re attracted to one another and instead of the slick banter, there’s cutesy chatter with Emma doing unexpectedly silly things and Alex falling for this gummy bear masquerading as a prickly pear.
The conceit, the novel coming to life as Alex invents it, is an excellent one, with Alex and Emma doing double duty as the characters in a Fitzgerald-redux tale of money and love set in 1924. He as the stalwart and confused romantic hero, a tutor caught in a love triangle with his sultry employer and her wealthy suitor, and she as the family’s au pair, who changes nationality the way we change dental floss. This allows the film to work with parallel love stories set in both worlds, albeit with uneven success. Most of the success lies with Hudson, who is given the chance to strut her stuff as a Swede, a German, a Spaniard and an apple-pie American. Wilson is given the chance to slick his hair back, and Sophie Marceau as Polina, the sultry apex of the triangle, is given the chance to take a bubble bath. Luckily, everyone looks fetching in the period garb.
Along the way we learn the finer points of story plotting from the male and female perspective as work on the novel progresses and Alex and Emma adjust to one another’s theories of same. If we’d just left it there, what a lovely film it would have been, blessed with dialogue that is unafraid to use words of several syllables and rife with moments such as Alex inserting a comment about Polina’s ample bosom to the narrative and Emma insisting on adding the word “heaving” to the description in a deliciously neat dismissal of Alex’s pretensions as well as a deconstruction of the cliché-ridden tale he’s telling.
As a bland and forgettable summer flick, ALEX & EMMA isnt overtly irritating. For fans of Hudson’s work in ALMOST FAMOUS and Wilson’s in THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, though, it’s a major letdown.