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Crap Out 

Based on The Gambler, Alex and Emma takes no risks at all.

The number of boring, uninspired studio pictures hitting today's multiplexes is getting depressing. To add insult to injury, many of these mind-numbing creations come from formerly -- and presumably still -- talented writers, directors, and actors. This week it's Rob Reiner's turn.

His snoozer, the romantic comedy Alex and Emma (written by Jeremy Leven and loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's short novel The Gambler), stars Luke Wilson as Alex Sheldon, a novelist suffering a bad case of writer's block. If he doesn't get his next book finished -- make that started and finished -- in the next 30 days, he won't get paid the $100,000 he needs to repay a couple of Cuban loan sharks, who have promised to drop him from his third-floor window if he doesn't get the dough.

After his laptop is trashed by the thugs, Alex decides to hire stenographer Emma Dinsmore (Kate Hudson) to type as he dictates his novel. Despite being wary of Alex's intentions, she takes the job.

The novel, set in early 20th-century New England, concerns a young man named Adam Shipley (also portrayed by Wilson), who is hired to tutor the children of exceedingly sexy French widow Polina (Sophie Marceau). Adam is instantly smitten. But Polina is also being courted by a wealthy businessman (David Paymer). Adam's passion for Polina blinds him to the possibility of a relationship with the children's Swedish au pair, Ylva (Hudson). Various revisions of the novel recast her as German, then Spanish and then American, all of them played by Hudson.

A sort of battle of the sexes erupts in the novelist's tiny apartment in Boston, although no one in the audience will be surprised when the prickly relationship slowly begins to soften -- that is, until Polina's flesh-and-blood counterpart (Marceau again) shows up at Alex's door.

The good -- to say nothing of the great -- romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman for the former; The Awful Truth, The Thin Man, Pat and Mike for the latter) rely on witty, perfectly delivered dialogue, brisk pacing, and, of course, engaging characters. Sadly, Alex and Emma has none of these. It's like an amateur theater production. Reiner rushes through the setup in a cartoon-like mad dash. Hudson, so good in Almost Famous -- and not much else since then -- substitutes squinted eyes and a scrunched-up nose for acting. The normally reliable Wilson seems out to lunch -- or perhaps just a bit embarrassed by it all.

To make matters worse, there's absolutely no chemistry between the two stars, and Reiner's staging of scenes is pedestrian at best. As comedies go, this film is disappointing, undemanding, and hackneyed.

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