If you thought that Britney Spears made a big brunet mistake a month ago, just wait until you see how Kate Hudson's flat brown yuppie hair martyrs her sexiness in Alex & Emma. It doesn't help that she's atrociously lit, but Hudson, cast as a Boston stenographer, looks weirdly washed-out and squishy-featured; it's as if we'd stumbled onto one of those old celebrity yearbook photos. ''Alex & Emma'' could almost be a ''Mad TV'' parody of a god-awful modern romantic comedy. The director, Rob Reiner, shuffles when-randy-met-prissy clichés as though he were a man struggling to play checkers long after he'd forgotten the rules.
Watching ''Alex & Emma,'' we're asked to buy that Luke Wilson, acting like a frat-house slob whose idea of heaven is a place where ESPN gets piped into every bathroom, is a successful young novelist grappling with writer's block. Are you ready for the premise? Wilson's Alex owes $100,000 to the Cuban Mob, and unless he can dash off a novel in 30 days to retrieve his advance, he'll be killed. Enter Emma (Hudson), whom Alex hires so that he can dictate his manuscript, a historical romance set on a ritzy island off the New England coast in 1924.
Each time Alex spouts a scene, we dissolve to the soggy, sub– ''Masterpiece Theatre'' love quadrangle he's describing, in which Adam (played by Wilson), an idealistic writer in beige linen, falls for Polina (Sophie Marceau), a ruby-lipped French gold digger. Then, just as abruptly, we're jerked back to the present day, where Emma, all harrumphy over the tiredness of Alex's, you know, male gaze, can't restrain herself from editing his scenes -- e.g., registering stern objection to such phrases as ''ample bosom.''
It's hard to say what's more excruciating: Alex's novel, which is like ''The Great Gatsby'' rewritten by Lizzie McGuire, or his quarrelsome flirtation with Emma, who has no existence as a character apart from her drive to reshape Alex into a specimen of respectable tamed manhood. The one note of relief is Hudson's twinkly performance in the live-fiction scenes as an au pair who morphs nationalities, from Swedish to German to Spanish. Speaking in accents worthy of Madeline Kahn, Hudson proves a witty farceur, perhaps because, as a blonde, she's obviously having much more fun.