Dir: Rob Reiner. US. 2003. 96 mins

Rob Reiner, of course, earned his romantic comedy spurs with When Harry Met Sally. And Kate Hudson showed a talent for the genre in last winter's $100m-plus US grosser How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. But neither director nor star manages to spark Alex & Emma, an insipid and woefully flimsy romantic comedy outing that pairs Hudson with Luke Wilson from recent US hit Old School. Aimed at older female audiences ill-served by summer action movies, this Franchise Pictures production opened in the US through Warner with a meagre gross of $6.1m from 2,310 sites. That the film will do any better in the international marketplace, where Franchise has licensed the picture to independent distributors, seems very unlikely, given that Hudson and Wilson are both still relatively unknown outside the States (How To Lose topped out at $53.6m overseas and Old School is currently in the middle of its international rollout).

The film is apparently loosely based on the true story of how Dostoevsky wrote his novella The Gambler and, in the process, fell in love with his assistant. In this unlikely version of the scenario, Wilson's Alex is a grungy young Boston author who must complete his next novel in 30 days in order to repay a $100,000 gambling debt. Blocked and facing threats of grievous bodily harm from a couple of Cuban tough guys, Alex hires no-nonsense stenographer Emma to help him complete the work.

For most of its first hour, the film alternates scenes in Alex's apartment with scenes depicting the events described by Alex as he dictates his book. The novel, set in the twenties, is about an idealistic young writer (also played by Wilson) who goes to tutor the children of a rich family and finds himself torn between a sly French seductress (Marceau) and a down-to-earth au pair (played by Hudson with a variety of silly accents and hair-dos). The links between fiction and reality are revealed in a predictable third act.

The bifurcated structure gives the film a monotonous rhythm and individual scenes are not helped by a script from Legend Of Bagger Vance writer Jeremy Leven that is very short on truly witty romantic comedy banter (most of the comedy turns on Emma's habit of offering unsolicited advice to Alex about the novel's plot and characters). Even more damaging is the lack of any sense that Alex and Emma are actually falling in love with one another: they seem instead to simply opt for romance as the path of least resistance.

The scenes in Alex's dingy apartment also suffer from unimaginative staging and curious design choices. Scenes from the novel - shot in a very artificial looking golden light - are slightly less claustrophobic, but still feel (and look) studio-bound. The overall impression is of a production constrained by a skimpy budget.

Hudson - whose character gets less slightly frumpy as the story unfolds - attempts to inject some life into the proceedings but cannot do much to counter the effects of Leven's flat script and Reiner's listless direction. Wilson (brother to the better known Owen) is saddled with a character who seems more like an overgrown slacker than a successful author of romantic fiction. His performance is pleasant enough but shows little evidence of leading man potential.

Prod cos Franchise Pictures, Reiner-Greisman/Escape Artists
Dist (US) Warner Bros
Intl sales Franchise
Prods Rob Reiner, Jeremy Leven, Alan Greisman, Todd Black, Elie Samaha
Exec prods Peter Guber, Jeffrey Stott, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch
Scr Jeremy Leven
Cinematography Gavin Finney
Prod des John Larena
Ed Robert Leighton
Music Marc Shaiman
Costume des Shay Cunliffe
Main cast Kate Hudson, Luke Wilson, Sophie Marceau, David Paymer