Based loosely on the story of how 19th century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky came to write "The Gambler," this movie is not much more than a simple love story.
I write a lot of reviews and articles under tight deadlines, but never have I had a literal gun to my head. That’s the predicament Alex finds himself in as he’s trying to write his second novel. In hock to Cuban loan sharks for $100,000 (it seems he has a bit of a gambling problem), Alex is given 30 days to finish his book. While dangling him upside-down from his balcony, goons tell him that if he doesn’t get them the cash in one month, it’s lights out. The only way he can get the cash is if he turns in a completed manuscript to his publisher. So much for finding a quiet cabin on the lake to peacefully ponder the next great American novel!
Suffering from writer’s block, Alex decides to give up trying to type and hires a stenographer so he can dictate. That’s how he meets Emma, a young professional with attentive eyes, a bright smile and an opinion about everything. While Alex talks, Emma types and interjects comments about everything from the shape and appearance of the book’s characters to what they say and do. The camera flits between the two worlds. The drab one in Alex’s impoverished apartment. And the colorful, ritzy one he’s creating with his words. As the book’s Adam and Anna (who is also called Ylva, Elsa and Eldora) fall in love, so too do Alex and Emma.
positive elements: What’s the lesson in love here? Substance over style. A love triangle illustrates the value of relationship, mutual trust and genuine affection over lustful, blind passion. Fond of using trite catchphrases in his book, Alex has Adam experience the "fury of a woman scorned." It demonstrates that actions have consequences, as well as showing that one needs not cheapen oneself by chasing after a fickle partner. Alex acknowledges that he must first "be the right man" before he can "meet the right woman."
spiritual content: When the Cubans come to rough him up, Alex hides in the closet and mouths the prayer, "Help me Lord!" Alex writes (sarcastically) that after catching a glimpse of a woman’s ankle, Adam is "forced into his room for prayer and reflection."
sexual content: Close-ups of cleavage give way to sexual encounters as Alex lives out his own fantasies in his book. When Adam and Polina, who is the third point on the love triangle, consummate their desire, it is shown as a snappy montage of sexual positions and motion (no explicit nudity). Adam also beds Anna. Meanwhile, in the real world, Emma criticizes Alex for letting his characters have sex so early in their relationships, but then winds up in bed with him in a matter of days (the state of their clothing reveals that they’ve done more than sleep). Elsa spills hot water on Adam’s crotch (he tells her to "blow on it"). Adam talks to Polina while she is taking a bubble bath. Conversations between Alex and Emma about sex aren’t overly crude (there are mentions of "balls" and "bosoms"), but their playful banter isn't beneficial, either.
violent content: After hanging Alex off his balcony, Cuban toughs set his computer on fire. Later they trash his apartment with a baseball bat. They threaten to kill him. An elderly woman falls over dead.
crude or profane language: A dozen misuses and abuses of God’s name (twice, "Jesus" is used as an expletive). A half-dozen mild profanities.
drug and alcohol content: Beer and wine make appearances at dinners, etc. Emma talks about her father drinking himself to death.
other negative elements: Alex has a habit of lying to get his way. At first, Emma is repulsed by this particular character trait, but as time goes by, she begins to see it as cute and "nice." Alex is an unrepentant gambler. Adam is too. Thankfully, both are big-time losers at the tables. Both Alex and Emma go to the bathroom while they’re writing. Emma shuts the door; Alex does not.
conclusion: Based loosely on the story of how 19th century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky came to write The Gambler, Alex & Emma does not aspire to high concept art or complex literature, but rather it is content to remain a sweet and simple love story. In short, it wants to be a date night movie, not an Oscar candidate. Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson have moderate chemistry and the film’s pacing, while teetering perilously near boredom at times, manages to elicit a comfortable sense of warmth. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that what happens in Alex’s apartment is interesting and compelling (expect for a couple of bathroom breaks and an unseen romp in the hay), but what happens in Alex’s book does comes pretty close to spoiling the whole thing. Let me put it this way: Alex is not a good writer. His characters are dull, predictable and shallow. Even giving the filmmakers credit for using such traits to contrast Alex and Emma’s relative depth, the people in the book take up too much screen time to have been neglected so callously.
From a moral perspective, what’s most disappointing about Alex & Emma is that even though Emma is supposed to be the "girl of substance," she’s all too eager to give herself up to Alex. When she first meets him, she shouts, "Well, I don’t intend to spend my time in the personal apartment of a desperate man. You want sex, Mr. Sheldon. You are barking up the wrong body!" Then, just days later, she’s cuddled up with him in his bed. And of course he’s all too eager to let her. There was once a day that onscreen romance didn’t equal sex. That day is all but gone.