Dostoyevsky Lite

There are, I suppose, people who still find Rob Reiner’s name on a movie sufficient reason to plunk down their box-office dollars. People who manage to overlook (or, perhaps, simply haven’t seen) his shrill “black” comedy, North, his unconscionably naive Medgar Evers biopic, Ghosts of Mississippi, or that insufferable, misogynistic divorce apologia called The Story of Us. For Reiner has persevered, maintaining the image of a bankable director of “prestige” Hollywood product. Yet, even for those of us who have never been indoctrinated into the cult of Reiner — who find even such “classics” as Stand by Me, A Few Good Men and The Princess Bride (a movie I never cared for, even as a child) something less than the sum of their hype — his last few movies look as though they had been made by someone else, someone with matters other than movies pressing on his mind. In recent years, Reiner has thrown his hat as frequently into the political ring as the cinematic one, strongly backing childhood-development programs and even contemplating a California gubernatorial bid. Is it possible that the actor-turned-director who, in fairness, did give us This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, now views his filmmaking career as little more than something to fall back on?

Taking Reiner’s latest, Alex & Emma, as any indication, the answer is yes. Though it is arguably Reiner’s least grotesque film of the last decade, it seems the work of a director in absentia, as though Reiner only periodically paid visits to the set between stops on the pre-campaign trail. Of course, movies are themselves a form of politics nowadays, a constant battle to remain diplomatic in the throes of impossible schedules, unruly egos and that consuming quest to satisfy the demands of one demographic or another. So, maybe it’s not that Reiner has checked out at all, but that he’s simply become too political — a director ever more devoted to middle-of-the-road moviemaking-by-committee.

Based very, very loosely on Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler and the story of its creation, Alex & Emma opens with a scene that is like a working definition of screen comedy at the end of its tether: A struggling writer is dangled out of a high-rise window by two beefy Cuban gangsters, one of whom is played by an actor named Chino XL and neither of whom would look out of place in a West Hollywood leather bar. The movie proceeds to be about how the writer (the Alex of the movie’s title, played by Luke Wilson) must deliver his new novel to his publisher (Reiner himself, the length of whose onscreen appearances in his own films generally seems in inverse proportion to their quality) in 30 days’ time, so as to be able to repay the $100,000 loan he owes to Chino and company. Dostoyevsky, of course, found himself in a similar predicament in 1866, having sunk deep into debt supporting the family of his late brother, his own no-account stepson, and, yes, having gambled away much of whatever remained. And Dostoyevsky, already well into writing Crime and Punishment, had contracted to complete his new novel under a one-month deadline — not for fear of some hood’s wrath, but because of an agreement he had made with the book’s intended publisher, from whom he had already borrowed a considerable sum, that failure to deliver the work on time would result in the publisher’s ownership of all future Dostoyevsky works — for free, for the next decade. At the suggestion of a friend, the author employed the services of a young stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna, who not only helped Dostoyevsky to complete The Gambler on time, but became his wife as well. One of those great, stranger-than-fiction true-life stories.

In Reiner’s variation, Grigoryevna is Emma (played by the winsome Kate Hudson), who becomes not only Alex’s secretary but his muse, offering spunky responses to his story ideas and assuming a role in the story itself, a hodgepodge of Gambler-esque scenes intercut with the present-day action and somehow managing to include Rip Taylor and Cloris Leachman for about 30 seconds each. For Reiner, and for screenwriter Jeremy Leven (who did this sort of thing much better in his 1995 directorial effort Don Juan DeMarco), the goal is a screwball throwback, in which Alex and Emma start out fighting like cat and dog only to discover they’re perfect for each other, just as Adam and Anna (their fictional counterparts in the novel-within-the-movie) come to the same realization. But in this would-be Dostoyevsky in Love, aiming for Hepburn-Tracy rhythms but falling short even of Paltrow-Fiennes, the results are more listless than lively.

Set almost entirely in one of those fantasy writer’s lofts that have been ever so carefully production-designed to look grungy-chic, the movie has no visual energy; it’s like a three-times-too-long sitcom pilot missing the laugh track. There’s no energy in the writing either, which is rather fatal for a movie about writing under the gun. Wilson (at best, the second most interesting Wilson brother) and Hudson (very much endowed with mom Goldie’s charms, but here peddling them much too hard) have a modicum of chemistry together, but despite all the tony appurtenances (stories within stories, romantic triangles within triangles), I never cared who ended up together or why. In the end, and despite its despairing insight into the sick soul of gambling both as an addiction unto itself and as metaphor for the folly of classism, The Gambler — rushing across the page as it does, like a novel running for its life — is a far screwier farce than this movie.


The Hard Word’s Hard
man Guy Pearce.

Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths, each of them reason enough to expect the unexpected, returned to Australia and teamed up to make The Hard Word, a nasty little heist movie that begins with a couple of screwy, lively scenes of its own: one in which Pearce and his team of “associates” stick up an armored car in something less than the blink of an eye, another in which Griffiths (as Pearce’s wife), visiting her hubby in prison, sticks two fingers between her legs and then draws a smiley face on the Plexiglas partition with the residue. (A great moment that gives new meaning to the idea of “down under” cinema.) Regrettably, The Hard Word is all downhill from there, a compendium of caper clichés and stylistic Tarantino-isms in which neither the getting nor the getting away is particularly gripping.

Revolving around a plot to rob the proceeds from Australia’s most famous horserace, the Melbourne Cup, the movie is thick with double- and triple-crosses, Aussie slang so indecipherable it occasionally requires English subtitling, and lots of gratuitous bloodletting played for grim chuckles. Even though the premise is beyond fatigued, this sort of thing can still be done well; evidence James Foley’s snazzy Confidence earlier this year. But the writer-director of The Hard Word, Scott Roberts, paints his movie in shades of the dreariest who’s-conning-who pictures, like The Score and the Ocean’s Eleven remake, and seems particularly hard-pressed to come up with any ideas that feel like his own. Shot in wide-screen, the movie is slick and technically proficient, but in an unexciting way.

The Hard Word’s greatest betrayal, however, is of its cast, of Pearce (hamming it up as the charismatic antihero) and Griffiths (as sexy as ever, but more or less abandoned by the movie midway through), who give it their all but get very little in return.


THE HARD WORD | Written and directed by SCOTT ROBERTS Produced by AL CLARK | Released by Lions Gate Films | At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Laemmle’s Sunset 5 and Landmark Westside Pavilion

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