Novelists are always romantic figures, whether they're romantic people or not. That's the idea at the heart of the Rob Reiner romantic comedy "Alex and Emma," which is loosely based on the story behind Fyodor Dostoeveski's "The Gambler." The lore has it that Dostoevski owed a huge gambling debt and needed to complete a novel to pay it off. He hired a stenographer to take dictation for him, and by the time he finished the novel, he'd fallen in love with her.
In "Alex and Emma," Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) is a writer who's desperately trying to finish his second novel, particularly considering that a duo of Cuban loan sharks keep showing up at his door to shake him down for the money he owes them. They give him a 30-day extension to pay up, which means he has to finish his book in that time -- a problem, since it's only one line long. Alex does, at least, have a thesis statement for the work: "It's about the powerlessness of being in love, how it devours the insides of a person like a deadly virus. It's a comedy."
To speed things along, he hires a stenographer, a crisp but charming know-it-all with the faux-Austenian name of Emma Dinsmore (Kate Hudson), so he can talk his book out instead of having to actually type it. He spins a period tale, set on a fictitious Maine resort island in the 1920s, about a young man named Adam (also played by Wilson) who takes a job as an English tutor to two French children who are visiting the States with their mother, the coolly stunning but unattainable Polina (Sophie Marceau). The story unfolds before us as Alex dictates it to Emma. A practical, no-nonsense type of girl, she offers suggestions for the book -- all of them much-needed -- and eventually makes her way into it herself, in several different guises. First she's a Swedish au pair named Ylva, then a German one called Elsa. Finally, she's the house cook, sweet, straightforward Anna, with whom Adam falls in love.
That happens just as Alex-the-writer is falling in love with Emma-the-stenographer, since, in fiction as well as life, life imitates art. This is the sort of fiction-blended-with-reality theme that Reiner should be able to carry off respectably, considering how beautifully he managed it with "The Princess Bride" (not to mention "This Is Spinal Tap").
But "Alex and Emma" is dull and listless from the start, partly because the leads fail to connect and partly because both the script and the direction let them down. The idea of a writer falling in love with his stenographer -- that is, the notion of two people setting out to accomplish one delineated task and finding themselves enmeshed in a fictional adventure that spills into real life -- is a pretty good one for a romantic comedy.
But then, when it comes to romantic comedies these days, the ideas themselves are almost always decent. It's the execution that leaves us gasping for fresh air. In this case, the script, by Jeremy Leven (he wrote and directed the highly entertaining "Don Juan DeMarco," starring Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp), feels far too taken with its own cleverness. The movie's fantasy-'20s motifs are connected to the contemporary story by Alex's purposely tortured prose -- stuff like "There was something in Anna's eyes that Adam, until now blinded by his love for Polina, saw for the first time -- a deep sadness combined with a quiet strength that made her seem incredibly beautiful." And a little of that goes a long, long way.
Beyond that, though, the actors are never quite able to relax into their lines. Wilson has always had a likable crankiness. And Hudson, although she has yet to be as appealing as she was in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," has plenty of innate charm, and I think she has the potential to become an astute actress. But you believe them more as co-workers and friends, quick with a word of criticism but never intentionally unkind, than as lovers; their romantic scenes have a drab, cuddly quality to them. The story demands that they underscore the importance of genuine connection and warmth in romance, as opposed to the more brittle varnish of romantic idealism. But these two are, theoretically speaking, making toast and doing the crossword puzzle before they've even bothered to kiss. While it's probably true that 99 percent of love is your regular, average, garden-variety just-getting-along, a romantic comedy should at least have the freshness of a new pair of slippers. We're not so interested in the same ratty old pair that's been gathering dust under the bed for years.
"Alex and Emma" is often pretty to look at: Cinematographer Gavin Finney gives the fantasy-period stuff, in particular, a nice dewy, nostalgic feel. But the movie's visual charms aren't nearly enough to sustain it. Reiner is obviously striving to make a romantic comedy that's attractive, warm and funny all at once; his effort is not just visible but elephantine. "Alex and Emma" has all the sizzle of a cup of Ovaltine before bed, and no matter how many times Reiner hits the microwave button, it's just not hot enough.