Harry Potter!

The Gambler
by Fyodor Dosoyevsky
(in paperback, $2.00)

. "Alex & Emma"

For those in need of an infusion of romance because movie hearts have been barely beating since "Sleepless in Seattle" and "When Harry Met Sally," director Rob Reiner has got something for you. There may be nothing new in his formula, but the packaging provides a bit of light escapist variation on the inevitability of screen courtship.

Part of that variation is patterned from the notion of Dostoevsky (no less!) falling in love with his stenographer while writing his novella, "The Gambler" under time pressure from his publisher. Here, novelist Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) feels the heat from a team of Cuban loan sharks who backed him for a bit of gambling and now want their $100,000 or else. These smart mugs know that the loan (at 200%!) will be repaid when Alex completes his book but they think nothing of burning his computer to prove a point. So... Alex has to acquire the services of a stenographer. Dostoevsky, are you turning over?

In a cute meet that's more a lame setup, poor, unsuspecting stenographic babe Emma Dinsmore comes knocking on Alex's door in answer to his ad that deceptively used the name of his publisher's firm. When she sees his deplorable bachelor digs and unkempt appearace, she follows her instinct, which is to flee, stenographic machine in tow, recognizing a fictional fabrication when she sees one.

But as movie formulas would have it, she returns for the scarf she left behind (Oh, Mr. Reiner and screenscribes Jeremy Leven and Adam Scheinman, have you no shame?) and, when she hears some more of his pleadings, winds up too empathetic to the struggling and endangered writer to turn away and goes to work.

Her stenography turns out to come at the price of running criticism, somewhat beyond the negotiated terms of her employment. But, as Alex dictates his story, he comes to value her judgements as much as her typing. Who would suspect?

His novel becomes a part of the movie as he (as Adam Shipley), Emma (as Ylva, Elsa, Eldora and Anna, as the writer changes his mind about the character), and the glorious Polina Delacroix (Sophie Marceau) take on the roles of his fictional characters. The outpouring of the novel from the writer's mind, then, becomes a parallel universe for Alex and Emma, and a way of transmitting their growing affections.

The alliance is littered with corn, but I developed a taste for it. I confess that any story based so much on the process of writing is likely to provide more than the average attraction for me. Not that it can or should be taken as a serious study in that process, nor in overcoming writers' block. Taking it lightly is why I enjoyed this movie. I was charmed and, once the intro was out of the way, found some pretty good laughs along the way.

If "Alex & Emma" is worth the price of admission, it's because of the cast chemistry. It's perhaps an unfortunate cost of seeing a formulaic film that while watching it you tend to imagine other people doing it. Oh, she's doing a Meg Ryan-Anne Heche-Goldie Hawn role. Oh, he's doing what Tom Hanks-Harrison Ford-Michael Douglas have all done. The thing is, though, there's not much wrong with this pair fulfilling this year's version of the romantic comedy.

Kate Hudson can hold her own in a roomful of glamour with her winsome personality and instinctive timing. With some of the resistance-quashing qualities of her mother, Goldie Hawn, she's got her own lock on engaging playfulness and vulnerability, holding easy people like me captive. The smile's a killer. The bigger surprise, however, is Luke Wilson who here is doing his best role to date, ably taking the reins of a charismatic guy in need of an understanding ally, commanding the screen with a sufficiently magnetic capability.

Sophie Marceau stuns the male eye, making perfect sense out of Alex's fixation. She's a natural beauty with all the talent necessary to put a camera lens entirely under her dominion.

In short, the movie works. Well, it does for me. And, I suspect, it will for anyone who isn't looking for Dostoevsky.

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Sophie Marceau, Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson
as Polina, Alex and Emma/Ylva/Elsa/Eldora/Anna

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