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ALEX AND EMMA

Romantic comedies don’t ordinarily have much heft, but Rob Reiner’s new effort is a particularly frail, vacuous example of the genre. It’s about a scruffy novelist (Luke Wilson) who falls for the perky stenographer (Kate Hudson) he hires to take dictation of a book he has to finish under deadline; of course, she falls for him, too. The “hook” that takes the movie beyond sitcom length (and the deadening reality of two people sitting around and talking for ninety minutes) is that the pair periodically play the characters in the 1924 plot he’s composing–a private tutor and an au pair girl who are also destined to link up. So there’s a symmetry in the plot of “Alex & Emma”–the “fictional” duo, Adam and Anna, gradually find romance as the “real” characters do likewise. But the picture requires a curious agreement between filmmakers and audience, too. While the leads imagine themselves in love, you have to imagine you’re being entertained by them. It’s definitely not a bargain.

Screenwriter Jeremy Leven, we’re told, based his script on an actual event in the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who’s supposed to have fallen for his transcriber while writing “The Gambler” under similar pressure from his publisher. But there’s a good reason why the Russian novelist never wrote about the event: even a genius would have a hard time making it remotely credible or engaging. And, as it happens, Leven is apparently no genius. Of course, in a romantic comedy one doesn’t require things to be thoroughly plausible. But it’s preferable if they have some slight basis in reality. Take, for instance, the comic villains with whom the story begins. Bobby (Lobo Sebastian) and Tony (Chino XL), bookies to whom Alex owes a bundle of cash for bets he’d put on Florida dog races, burst into his apartment and, to threaten him, dangle him out the window not once but twice, in broad daylight; and although the place is in a busy Boston neighborhood, as we see in other scenes, nobody notices. (There’s a curious disparity, too, between the trendy, gentrified street and the inside of the place, which resembles a slum dwelling.) But all that proves to be small potatoes beside the larger problems. The greatest is a complete lack of chemistry between the title characters; one never feels them getting truly close, either in the present or the novelistic “flashbacks.” (There’s no sense of the passage of time, either.) Then there’s the content of the novel. Much of the running-time is devoted to Alex dictating the text as he invents the story (it often sounds like an audio book), and despite the fact that both Emma and Alex’s publisher Wirschafter (played by Reiner himself) claim to love it, the language is cliched and dreadful–and what’s even more absurd, it wouldn’t fill a thirty-page precis, let along a 300-page tome. The concluding twists that Leven’s concocted are poor, too. They’re intended to say something about life imitating art (and/or art imitating life), but since the final product has no connection with either art or life, they fall flat.

If the script is bad, the director and his cast don’t make it seem any better. Reiner’s pacing is unrelievedly lax and lethargic–which unhappily exacerbates Wilson’s usual sleepy manner. It’s fine for a romantic leading man to be laid-back, so long as he’s charming and smooth (Cary Grant was a good example). But Wilson isn’t just absurdly relaxed; he’s shabby and dopey, too. Hudson tries to compensate by going the ain’t-she-cute route, trying for a snappy, upbeat approach that her mother might once have been hired to provide. (She’s even given a “darling” crying jag that’s supposed to be irresistible, and the assortment of foreign personalities her au pair is provided with as Alex develops his plot resemble extra-broad Carol Burnett sketches.) Hudson does bring an occasional spark of energy to the proceedings, but Wilson and the material keep extinguishing it. The supporting cast is weak as well. Reiner sleepwalks through things; David Paymer and Sophie Marceau overdo the caricatures as Adam’s employer Polina and her smarmy beau John in the 1924 scenes; and Cloris Leachman turns up for an alarmingly over-the-top cameo as Polina’s grandmother. The picture does, however, provide a rare opportunity to see a subdued Rip Taylor, who appears briefly (and bearded) as Polina’s father. If anything can be a comedown after “Hollywood Squares,” this is it. The production itself has considerable gloss–a good deal of effort was obviously put into the white-and-cream look of the twenties sequences–but sets can never save what’s going on in front of them.

Ultimately “Alex & Emma” proves a notably thin entry even in an ordinarily weak genre. The contrived, artificial quality of the script and the listless realization by all concerned make for a would-be comic tonic that lacks all fizz.

ASSASSINATION TANGO

What is it with filmmakers who become fascinated by the tango? In their obsession for the dance they toss aside all reason and insist on constructing elaborate cinematic panegyrics to their terpsichorean avocation. Sally Potter did it back in 1997 with “The Tango Lesson,” and now Robert Duvall makes a fool of himself with “Assassination Tango,” a picture that’s about as bad as “The Apostle,” his previous auteur effort, was splendid. Haphazardly constructed and featuring dialogue that sounds poorly improvised–as well as a central character who’s less a human being than a collection of clichés–it comes across as a misguided vanity project of the sort that actors in search of colorful parts often create for themselves. And when it offers up observations like “Tango is life–tango is love–tango is hate–tango is everything,” and apparently intends us to take them seriously, the movie becomes simply absurd.

Duvall stars as John J. Anderson, a grizzled but purportedly ace hit-man who’s inked by his boss Frankie (Frank Gio), the proprietor of the dance club where John hangs out, to ice an Argentinian general in Buenos Aires. John is reluctant to take the trip, since he’s afraid of missing the upcoming birthday celebration for sweet little Jenny (Katherine Micheaux Miller), the daughter of Maggie (Kathy Baker), his adoring girlfriend. But he allows himself to be persuaded, and soon finds himself in South America conferring with his none-too-bright contacts Orlando (Julio Oscar Mechoso) and Miguel (Ruben Blades). Unfortunately complications arise which force him to postpone the hit and remain in Argentina longer than expected, and he takes the opportunity to visit a local club, where he becomes entranced with the tango, especially as performed by the luscious Manuela (Luciana Pedraza). Before long the whole assassination aspect of the narrative is temporarily shelved as John and Manuela flirt and dance; the latter sequences have some energy and considerable style, but the quasi-romantic scenes fall flat–the result of the drab dialogue, Pedraza’s stilted delivery and Duvall’s attempt to make up for it by overdoing the crotchety, cantankerous shtick something fierce. Eventually, however, the murder plot kicks in again–albeit with numerous last-minute twists and reversals. Some political machinations occur in the final act, suggesting that the assassination might have had an official sanction, but they’re far too obscurely presented to be comprehensible.

The point of this laborious exercise will escape most viewers. Turgid and self-indulgent, “Assassination Tango” seems to have no other raison d’être but to permit its star to mug ferociously and enjoy a few dance steps with an attractive partner. But while Duvall might be enjoying himself, his audience certainly won’t. A simple request: in the future, when filmmakers find themselves fascinated by the tango, would they please have the common courtesy to indulge their obsession in a more private forum than on the screen?