Smith's magnetic appeal complemented by clever dialogue, credible characters in date-doctor comedy
All the wicked charm and confident charisma that make Will Smith a movie star are present in spades in "Hitch," a bright and sharp-witted -- if predictable -- romantic comedy about a matchmaker who coaches lovestruck schmendricks in the wooing of otherwise unattainable girls of their dreams.
Letting go his action-hero persona, Smith's winning way with clever come-ons and witty rejoinders becomes the pulse of this smarter-than-average crowd-pleaser that revolves around two archetypal love stories told with amusingly atypical details.
One of the romances is orchestrated by Alex "Hitch" Hitchens (Smith) on behalf of a client -- a hapless, nebbish nice-guy accountant ("The King of Queens'" Kevin James) who has fallen from afar for an out-of-his-league heiress (ex-model Amber Valletta), whose assets he helps oversee.
The other involves Hitch's practiced smoothness backfiring on him when he meets his match in a cheeky, confident, fun-loving, resolutely single tabloid reporter (Eva Mendes) -- who is bent on exposing New York's mysterious so-called "date doctor" after her paper runs a picture of the knockout heiress out on a date with the dork.
Having not yet learned who her target is, Mendes ("Out of Time") and Smith have a teasing, irresistible, almost Howard-Hawkesian, chemistry between them from scene one. When they first meet in a bar, they flirt by insisting that they're not flirting -- while describing in enticing detail what each of them would do if they were. Their dates are all disasters, but in ways that keep drawing them back together in spite of it all.
With surprising credibility, the stout, tongue-tied James and the slinky-sweet Valletta complement each other as well, with an appropriate awkwardness, as he stumbles and gaffes onto her romantic radar while trying (and often failing) to follow Hitch's imaginative game plan for winning her heart.
But it's the uncommonly snappy dialogue by first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch, and his gift for seasoning almost every scene with subtle little character flourishes and creative formula twists, that give "Hitch" its consistent and lingering smiles. Example: When our hero advises his client that he must impress Valetta's best girlfriend to stay in the game, James is thrown for a loop when "she" turns out to be a gay guy.
The movie also rises above the genre norm because these romances are driven more by genuine moments between well-drawn characters than by the underlying date-doctor gimmick. Smith and James find enough familiarity in each of their characters that any guy can identify very closely with both of them. Mendes eschews cliché as the cunning gossip reporter who is genuinely happy as a single woman, but cautiously open to a romance with Hitch. Only Valletta is short-changed by her underwritten object-of-desire role.
This isn't to say that contrived episodes don't rear their ugly heads from time to time -- that's what keeps "Hitch" from being great guy-centric romantic comedy in the vein of Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity." Director Andy Tennant ("Sweet Home Alabama") falls back on montage sequences, manufactured misunderstandings and poorly conceived slapstick from time to time (heavily tapped for the movie's terrible trailers and TV ads).
But until it conspicuously sidesteps the fallout of one of those misunderstandings -- which leads to an easy, rather pedestrian finale -- "Hitch" always rights itself again with more moments of unexpected depth or great humor, often involving Smith's ongoing asides to the audience.