A friend of mine once said, “Rob Reiner can’t make a bad movie.” This was in Reiner’s hey-day following the success of “This Is Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand by Me,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery” and “A Few Good Men.” My response to this friend was, “No. Rob Reiner is completely capable of making a bad movie. And it is his awareness of this that keeps him in check.” The next year, he came out with the nonsensical “North,” and Rob Reiner proved once and for all to the world – and my friend – that he was fully capable of making absolute crap.
Two of the greatest directors to emerge from the 1980s and 1990s were Rob Reiner and Ron Howard. Sadly, both have proved to the world that, as Kurt Vonnegut might paraphrase, their excrement still has a particular odor. Rob Reiner’s was the aforementioned “North.” Ron Howard’s was “The Paper” and “EdTV.”
While Ron Howard has survived his garbage films, Rob Reiner has been struggling over the years to recapture his earlier days of power directing. Unfortunately, he’s also trying to get in touch with his feminine side. It started with 1999’s forgettable “The Story of Us” and it continues with “Alex & Emma.”
Sure, Rob Reiner can do light romance. He did it with “When Harry Met Sally” and even “The Princess Bride.” But he’s just not growing as a director. Heck, if anything, he’s backpedaling. There was more growth in the 20-minute sample of “This Is Spinal Tap” he made for the studio to secure financing than in the entire past ten years of his career.
Sadly, it appears that Reiner’s real strength is as a collaborator. With “When Harry Met Sally,” he had Norah Ephron. With “This Is Spinal Tap,” he had Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. With “The Princess Bride,” he had William Goldman. With “Stand By Me” and “Misery,” he had Stephen King. Often, Reiner’s collaborators went on to become giants in their respective genres. For example, Christopher Guest became the king of the mockumentaries with “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show” while Norah Ephron became he queen of what she calls “Jewish love stories” (i.e., love stories in which the only obstacle between the lovers is their own neuroses) with “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
In fact, too much of “Alex & Emma” is an overt attempt to recreate the lightning in a bottle Reiner achieved with “When Harry Met Sally” – with Ephron noticeably absent. And this is not to say that Ephron is really all that brilliant on her own (after all, she did pen “Heartburn”). Her follow up films as screenwriter and director are lukewarm compared to “When Harry Met Sally.” But so were Rob Reiner’s. In this case, both their careers show that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
The story of “Alex & Emma” is simple and, with the exception of various flashback-style sequences into a novel-in-progress, makes me think this was originally written as a play. Most of the movie takes place in a single apartment when Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) has hired Emma Dinsmore (Kate Hudson) to be his stenographer for his new novel. The catch is that he has only 30 days to write the piece because he owes $100,000 to the Cuban Mafia.
As Alex dictates the novel (because the Cubans burned his Powerbook), Emma plays Devil’s advocate by questioning all of his writing decisions. This tense relationship soon blossoms into sexual tension, and then causes them to fall in love. Of course, as the book nears its end, so does their professional relationship, and Alex and Emma must figure out their next steps.
The real problem is that everything in the entire film is predictable. The story-within-a-story of the novel Alex is writing is likewise painfully predictable. Even the semi-surprise ending is predictable – not necessarily because it is a plot device that has been used in practically every sitcom from “Three’s Company” to “Step by Step,” but because it is just telegraphed throughout the entire film. Predictability isn’t necessarily bad in a romantic comedy, but even within this genre there should be some attempt to do something – anything – different.
The only thing that saves “Alex & Emma” is its cuteness. Luke Wilson and (more importantly) Kate Hudson are both cute. But even this cuteness wears thin as Wilson and Hudson’s acting breaks down in several scenes, making their conversation sounds more like close friends (which they are in real life) who are helping each other memorize lines than the actual characters. Other times, the theatrical one-room setting gets the best of them as they lay on theatre-style acting, which can squash a performance on the big screen.
“Alex & Emma” is a decent date movie if your girlfriend refuses to see a true love story like “The Hulk” or “The Matrix Reloaded.” But it probably isn’t going to live past autumn DVD rentals. Rob Reiner will still be remembered for “When Harry Met Sally.” Kate Hudson will still be remembered for her overly hyped performance in “Almost Famous.” And Luke Wilson will continue to piggyback on the careers of successful women (ala “Charlie’s Angels” and “Legally Blonde”) to keep his box office numbers up.