Whenever fictional writers, poets, painters, musicians, or filmmakers get praised for their artistic genius in a movie, it's always best just to take the film's word for it, rather than actually see or hear their inevitably abominable work. Screenwriters and directors have a hard enough time managing their own craft without having to master another one. It's one thing to imagine Mr. Holland as a frustrated classical composer who gives up his career to teach high-school orchestra, but it's another to witness his hilariously wanky opus. So when Luke Wilson declares himself "a brilliant novelist" in Rob Reiner's tepid meta-comedy Alex & Emma, his work has to deliver much more than the sub-Harlequin period romance that materializes on screen. The gold standard for this sort of exercise is Alain Resnais' 1977 masterpiece Providence, a bitterly funny look at how real life gets processed through an author's imagination, providing a window into his narcissism and distorted worldview. Reiner and company have a chance to do something lighter, a romantic comedy that playfully comments on itself as it unfolds, but the movie and the movie-within-a-movie share a chemistry even more awkward than that of their flat-footed leads. For all Wilson's fussing over the need for a great opening, Alex & Emma goes through bewildering paroxysms just to get off the ground. After blowing the money from his successful first novel at the track, Wilson gambles away another $100,000 (including interest) in loans from Cuban thugs, who expect payment in 30 days or else they'll toss him out of his third-story loft. Wilson will have enough money to cover his debts once he turns in the manuscript for his second novel, but the dreaded sophomore slump has kept him pinned to the first line. With his laptop burned to cinders, his only hope is to dictate the entire book to stenographer Kate Hudson, whose constant interjections affect the story's direction and change Wilson's thinking about matters of the heart. Wilson and Hudson both double (and, in Hudson's case, quintuple) as characters in his work-in-progress, with Sophie Marceau as a wealthy aristocrat with a fading fortune and David Paymer as a lecherous debtor who courts her for marriage. In spite of the myriad possibilities for wild comic tangents, the best Reiner and his screenwriters can manage is to have Hudson throw on a few wigs and mug wildly in different accents, as if she were the guest host on a particularly bad episode of Saturday Night Live. In order to comment on the writing process, Alex & Emma would need to break all the rules and reassemble the story in its own clever terms, but the script appears to have died in committee–it's palatable only because the few jagged bits of creativity and imagination have been squeezed out of it. The romance formula goes down easy, but so does a spoonful of tapioca.