Smith-fueled romantic comedy balances charisma, clichés
By Devin D. O'Leary
Directed by Andy Tennant
Cast: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James
Years ago, Will Smith was crowned the King of July 4th. A proven box office heavyweight since the days of Independence Day, Smith has all but owned the summer cineplexes over the crucial 4th of July weekend. Last summer's Smith vehicle, I, Robot, managed to turn a profit; but it was hardly the runaway hit the studio was expecting. In the wake of that multimillion dollar stumble, fans might find themselves a tad concerned that 2005's Will Smith offering, Hitch, is steering far clear of the summer blockbuster season, opening up in the midst of the late-winter, pre-Oscar doldrums. Has the Fresh Prince lost his mojo?
Well, it's arguable whether or not Smith ever actually had any serious mojo. Aside from his first major film outing (1993's Six Degrees of Separation), Smith hasn't exactly stretched his acting ability, offering a wink and a grin as punctuation marks to whatever special-effects-filled spectacle he seemed to find himself in (Men in Black, Bad Boys, Wild Wild West). It's hard to believe that Smith's candy-coated charm has never been employed in a romantic comedy, but Hitch is his first.
Hollywood is firmly convinced that audiences like comfort, and studios are doing their best to provide them with films that offer nothing even slightly unfamiliar. Hence, Hitch stars a very familiar face in a story you've probably seen before. In the film, Smith plays Alex “Hitch” Hitchens, a self-styled “date doctor” who teaches New York City's dateless wonders the ins and outs of wooing the ladies. He's basically a self-esteem councilor, telling guys to be cool, be yourself and don't wimp out when it comes to asking the woman of your dreams for a date.
With his “love is all fun and games” philosophy and his habit of addressing the movie theater audience directly, you would think that Hitch is a carbon copy of cinematic womanizer Alfie, who recently prowled Manhattan's streets in the guise of Jude Law. Actually, aside from a touch of commitment phobia, Hitch is a big, old softhearted Cupid who just wants to see couples in love. He helps clients out for three dates and three dates only, and then “you're on your own.”
Naturally, Hitch himself is ripe for some romantic hijinks. The opportunity for said arrives in the form of a too-busy-for-romance journalist named Sara (2 Fast 2 Furious' Eva Mendes). Hitch puts his best moves on her, but she manages to deflect every one; which, of course, only intrigues him all the more.
The joke here is that Hitch is a smooth operator when it comes to other people's love lives. When it boils down to the girl of his dreams, he's all tongue-tied and stumble-toed. Hitch and Sara go on a handful of comically compromised dates, but still manage to fall in love. At least until the inevitable RomCom Twist. All romantic comedies these days must be built around the RCT, a moment of mild deception allowing the primary couple to break up before they make up. (For example: his roommate bet him he couldn't sleep with her or she's actually a maid.) Sure enough, Sara finds out that Hitch is New York's legendary “date doctor.” Thinking that she's being played by the ultimate playboy, she decides to go undercover and expose his secret seduction service. Naturally, this ticks him off, leading to a silly fight about fifteen minutes before the closing credits.
This whole “you lied to me” concept is really starting to wear thin. We know our hero and heroine won't spend more than ten minutes apart. We also know that five minutes worth of conversation would have cleared this up, avoiding pretty much all the third act rigmarole.
It's kind of a shame that Hitch is predicated on such a worn-out romantic comedy model. It's actually got quite a bit going for it. It's hard to deny the charisma on display. Smith and Mendes look great on screen. If they fail to ignite Hepburn-and-Tracey-style sparks, its only because the fluffy script and lightweight director (Andy Tennant, who gave us Sweet Home Alabama and the Olsen twins movie It Takes Two) don't offer them enough fuel. The supporting cast is uniformly watchable, with portly comic Kevin James providing a lot of laughs as Hitch's sidekick, a client who's madly in love with a rich heiress (Amber Valetta).
Light, laughable and staffed by some pretty likable people, Hitch is hardly the worst romantic comedy you'll see this year. ... The Wedding Date already laid claim to that title.
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