The cinema exerts so powerful and personal an effect on the senses and the spirit that viewers often feel an intense emotional connection with particular movies, especially from their own pasts, far exceeding their reactions to other kinds of art and perhaps even to life itself. In part because of the sheer physical act of sitting in the dark watching a light flickering hypnotically on a giant screen, displaying people and actions exaggerated far beyond normality in size and emphasis, film imprints itself on the psyche and thus the memory in a special way. Frequently, as a result, we recall not only certain specific movies, but ourselves watching those movies.
We not only regard a particular film with nostalgia, but also recollect a lost context that may include youthful excitement, childhood itself, the shared experience of a public art, even the familiar erotically charged atmosphere of courtship, darkness, and propinquity. When a whiff of stale popcorn from the concession counter, say, opens the Proustian floodgates, we may then remember both a past time and a previous self. No wonder so many people bemoan the fact that the films of today differ so drastically from those of yesterday. It's not only that movies have changed, the viewer has changed.
Of course "they don't make movies like they used to," as the common complaint goes. But we are not what we used to be, either, thanks to time, the subtle thief of youth, and the fact that life tends to improve in retrospect. For those who mourn the loss of their own and the industry's past, however, a movie like Alex & Emma recollects a lost Hollywood, perhaps even a lost innocence. It looks very like an updating of motion pictures from the Golden Age of American film, just the sort of flick that now and then turns up late at night on one of the movie channels.
Like so many light romantic comedies of the past, the movie employs a simple, essentially static plot to explore some familiar territory and show off its female star, Kate Hudson. Hudson plays Emma, a stenographer --- remember them in the old movies? --- hired by Alex (Luke Wilson), a blocked writer who must dictate a new novel in a month. The deadline has been imposed by two Cuban loan sharks, not out of any great concern for literature, but so that he can earn enough from his publisher to pay off his gambling debts. If he cannot, they cheerfully promise, they will kill him.
As soon as the script establishes its situation, the audience, especially those who made their bones watching scores of comedies starring smart, attractive couples like Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn or William Powell and Myrna Loy or Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart, can predict exactly how matters will turn out. To begin with, after some flip dialogue --- with the staccato clatter of some 1930s movie --- articulates the initial antagonism between the two, their cooperative work on the project eventually generates a current of electricity, and the two young people fall in love.
Aside from the absolute artificiality of a completely incredible premise, the picture turns pleasantly on another familiar ploy, the movie that illustrates the creation of the narrative itself. As Alex dictates his novel, itself a bit of light romantic nonsense set in the 1920s, the work comes to life, with the writer himself playing the protagonist of the fiction he composes and Hudson taking on a series of roles as the young woman with whom, after overcoming a few comic obstacles, he will fall in love. Together they write and rewrite, changing the characters, the dialogue, and the action as they come to know each other, directing a movie within the movie that takes place in their imaginations and in front of all of us.
The act of writing, unlike painting or sculpture or composing music, is extraordinarily uninteresting to watch --- ask any writer --- and therefore rarely allows an opportunity for exciting cinema, which necessitates the sort of dramatization that animates Alex & Emma. To see Alex's novel come to life and display the authorial changes, deletions, and revisions not only creates some appeal in the act but also metaphorically mirrors the developing relationship between the two main characters. Both the framing story and Alex's (and Emma's) novel provide a measure of charm to this light romantic fluff.
Obviously intended as a vehicle for Kate Hudson, Alex and Emma displays the young woman in a number of roles, as she plays not only herself, but also the maid of the household where Alex's fictional protagonist works as a tutor. The constant revisions allow her to keep changing her hairstyle and color, her accent, her manner, and so forth, all in the service of a lighthearted plot. Nobody could possibly take Alex & Emma seriously, but it should please those members of the audience who complain that they don't make movies like they used to. In fact, they do.
Alex & Emma, starring Kate Hudson, Luke Wilson, Sophie Marceau, David Paymer, Rob Reiner, Francois Giroday, Lobo Sebastian, Chino XL; written by Jeremy Leven; directed by Rob Reiner. Cinemark Tinseltown; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.