Directed by: Andy Tennant
Starring: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James, Amber Valletta, Julie Ann Emery, Adam Arkin
No, this movie is not a great work of art, but it doesn't pretend to be one. Yes, it follows a pretty set recipe, but there's a huge difference between a recipe for creamed chip beef on toast (or "SOS," as it is often so rightly called) and canard a l'orange. If Hitch isn't quite the equivalent of the latter, it's not that far from it, and what a delightful break this film is from all the SOS we've recently been force-fed.
Of course, part of what makes a recipe work lies in the quality of the ingredients, and the ones here are generally of the finest kind, from the clever screenplay by newcomer Kevin Bisch to the nigh-perfect casting to the smooth direction of Andy Tennant (forget that he made Sweet Home Alabama).
Oh, sure, the movie has the seemingly obligatory "Will Smith is not gay" scene. You saw it in the trailer, when co-star Kevin James kissed him, but the scene plays better -- and uses a different take from the one in the preview -- in the body of the film.
Despite its charms, Hitch also makes a few slight missteps. The device of Smith talking to the camera feels like it belongs in another movie, and some of the more slapstick scenes definitely call for a director who's better with physical comedy. Tennant is great at choreographing complex scenes with sinuous camerawork and fluid character movement, but he seems to freeze into a state of TV sitcomitis if a pratfall is involved. And the movie's requisite Big Misunderstanding scene, where Smith is confronted with his presumed perfidy, is just plain bad.
The bulk of the film, though, is simply charming. Smith stars as Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, the "date doctor." His specialty is helping lovesick guys bring about the romances of their dreams, and he's very good at it, due in part to a long-ago, traumatizing first love he experienced back when he was an uber-nerd. Everything he did wrong back then is at the core of what he teaches guys not to do now. However, the risk of getting hurt again keeps him from practicing what he preaches.
This holds true until he meets Sara (Eva Mendes, Stuck on You), a gossip columnist whose job has soured her on the prospect of love. The story's not terribly original, but it more than gets by on the quality of the dialogue and the undeniable chemistry between Smith and Mendes.
There's even more chemistry between Smith and Kevin James (TV's The King of Queens), who plays Albert, an awkward, pudgy financial advisor who is hopelessly in love with socialite Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta, Duplex), whose fortune is handled by his company. This plot twist is where Hitch raises itself a notch above standard romantic-comedy fare.
In a lesser film, the relationship between Hitch and Albert -- as well as the relationship between Albert and Allegra -- would be a subplot. But in Hitch, three separate plots are on equal footing. It's a daunting undertaking to draw in so much, but the film manages to make it work, carefully structuring things so that we're never away from any of the stories for very long. On rare occasions, this requires a bit of a stretch (do we really believe Hitch would take a call from Sara while Albert is screaming in the background from having his back waxed?), but it pays dividends.
It works so well, in fact, that the movie manages to effortlessly bring in the subplot for the genre's essential boy-loses-girl bit, wherein Sara mistakenly believes Hitch helped a louse (Jeffrey Donovan, TV's Touching Evil) bed and abandon her best friend (Julie Ann Emery, TV's Capital City). The only flaw with this part is that the best friend's story doesn't logically support the misunderstanding.
But this is mere carping, since this small gaffe sits side-by-side with scenes of deft charm. And the film's savvy enough not to drag out the misunderstanding for reels and reels, limiting it to a handful of brief scenes.
One of the biggest curses of the romantic comedy is the genre's tendency to make the viewer wade through minute upon minute of forced faux-gloominess that could be cleared up in a sentence or two. Here the necessary sentences are spoken quite soon, and with a good bit of wit. That may not be a stroke of genius, but it's certainly a welcome departure from the usual.
Hitch won't change your life, but it will keep you happily entertained for a couple hours. In the bleak midwinter of movie releases, that's more than enough. Rated PG-13 for language and some strong sexual references.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke