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Less Than Zero

A review of Alex and Emma

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Alex and Emma (PG-13)
Warner Bros.

Take the worst romantic comedy you've ever seen -- one with no clever dialogue, abysmal comic timing and unlikable characters -- and multiply it by zero. That's the relative value of this stinker from director Rob Reiner, who, in his better days, gave us gems like Misery, Stand By Me and The Princess Bride. In recent years, however, Mr. Reiner directed North, an inexplicable mess, and The Story Of Us, a nauseatingly insider romance about a whiny, spoiled southern California couple and their grating group of yuppie friends.

Alex and Emma, starring the otherwise capable and attractive Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson, continues the tradition of The Story of Us by asking us to care about the potential coupling of a pair of really obnoxious Gen-Xers. Mr. Wilson plays Alex Sheldon, a self-proclaimed brilliant novelist and member of "the great army of destitute artists." He is destitute because he's a gambling addict and he must deliver the follow-up to his debut novel in 30 days to pay off his debts or a couple of muscled Cuban Mafioso types will whack him. He lives in shabby chic squalor, has no apparent conscience, and is a huge slob and a womanizer.

Enter Emma Dinsmore (she of the appropriately literary name), a stenographer lured to Alex's apartment under false pretenses, but who stays to take dictation of his novel because, well, there's just something intriguing about him. Maybe it's his lame introduction during which, in less than two minutes, he crudely reveals his attraction to her -- she seems like a good potential lay.

So Alex and Emma "work" together -- he spouts out a novel that doesn't even qualify as bad romance and she interrupts constantly -- over the next few weeks, heading for the inevitable bedroom scene. Meanwhile, we are ferried back and forth from their contemporary setup to the workings of Alex's "novel," a romance set on an island off the coast of Maine in the 1920s. There, young gigolo Adam (also played by Wilson) tries to win the affection of wealthy heiress Polina (Sophie Marceau) but is distracted by a series of multinational au pairs, all played by Hudson.

It's hard to tell whether Reiner and screenwriter Jeremy Leven intended to be farcical with the character of the novelist; Alex's prose is bad beyond belief. They were reportedly borrowing from Feodor Dostoevski's short novella The Gambler, in which the author, racing to finish a novel and settle a gambling debt, falls in love with his typist. But their idea of how to make the characters contemporary is to make them mouthy, crass, emotionally insecure, pouty ... and hot!

Spare us. In a scene that is supposed to foreshadow a rising love interest between Alex and Emma, Swedish au pair Ylva (Hudson) pours scalding water from a teapot onto Adam's crotch. "Maybe you can blow on it," he suggests and in what will hopefully be the young actress' most embarrassing film moment, she gets down on her knees and does so. It's a laugh a minute.

I knew it was going south when, in one scene, Alex, dictating to Emma, never misses a beat and keeps blabbering while taking a piss with the bathroom door open. Titillating. Later, she yells through the closed door while taking a somewhat more delicate pee. It's a match made in heaven.

Mr. Reiner inserts himself into the film as the sleazy publisher who whips off a check for $125,000 to Alex on the completion of his novel, declaring it great. It's a fitting conceit for a director who gets richer every time he cranks out a movie, even one as abysmal and worthless as Alex and Emma.

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