In "Hitch," Will Smith plays a high-end romance consultant specializing in helping the lovelorn woo and win the women of their dreams in three easy dates. You can tell he's good at what he does by the hotness differential between his thyroidal clients and their hot-off-the-runway love interests -- I'm talking about off-the-charts, sitcom-level disparities. Eugenics enthusiasts would recoil in horror. Hitch himself is effortlessly attractive, of course -- confident but not slick, charming but not unctuous. He also happens to be squeaky decent: He'll only take on clients who are deeply in love. He's a catch, in other words. In his first role as the lead in a romantic comedy.
Not that you'd know it right away. The movie kicks off with Hitch breaking down the rules of strategic romance for the camera, and for a few heart-stopping moments it seems as though the movie might slide into "Alfie" territory. Luckily, the camera confessions soon recede and "Hitch" gets down to specifics. The "date doctor" meets Albert (Kevin James, "King of Queens") -- shy, pudgy, certified. He's the mild-mannered CPA of a beautiful socialite and heiress, Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta, supermodel), whose jet-setting boyfriend was recently busted for cheating by Sara Melas (Eva Mendes), the gossip queen of a major New York tabloid and soon to be Hitch's undoing. With a title like "Hitch," there had to be one, and it's presently revealed that the hero's heart was sealed off to love while in college, when he looked inexplicably like TV's Urkel.
As standard character motivation tropes go, that Hitch had his heart broken by his first girlfriend and refused to fall in love again is serviceable, if unimaginative. But it's better than the white-hot trauma that supposedly scarred Sara for life. (Younger sister, skating accident, go figure.) As is probably evident by now, "Hitch" gets into some minor trouble when it ventures into the deep psych stuff, especially when it burdens Smith with monologues stacked with more nuggets of reassuring, easy-peasy wisdom than a display table at an airport bookstore. (There's one speech near the end in which running, leaping, jumping and flying figure prominently as go-for-it metaphors.) But when first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch and director Andy Tennant veer off the beaten get-girl, lose-girl, get-girl path -- which, thankfully, they do often -- the script feels taut and springy, and the actors bounce off it like toddlers on a trampoline.
Smith is a gifted comic actor, and seeing him in a lighthearted comedy, his first romantic lead, is a pure pleasure. He could carry the movie on his own, but he doesn't need to -- the three other leads more than adequately pull their weight. James is enormously likable and fresh in what must have looked like a fairly rote character on the page. Valletta manages to make the unlikeliest celebrity socialite ever imagined seem believably sweet, warm and centered; and the charismatic Mendes commands the screen like an Italian screen siren from the '50s and '60s. They look like they're having a good time together, which is as much as one can ask from actors in a romantic comedy, and more than they usually deliver. Add to this that they're a quartet and that the happy chemicals seem to float freely in at least three directions. Both couples seem genuinely to like each other, as do Smith and James.
Romantic comedies have become so cannibalistic lately that "Hitch" stands out for what seem like major innovations by comparison. (That's as much a comment on the state of the genre as on the pleasures of this movie, but still, it bears saying). One of them is that "Hitch" is told from a male point of view that doesn't subscribe to the me-hunter, you-stay-in-cave school of intrinsic sexuality (a theory that still seems to thrive among members of the writers and directors guilds, if nobody else.) It may be as idealized and romanticized as the usual female one, but still it's a nice change. The other is that the previews do not, as it turns out, contain the only three funny moments in the movie. They contain portions of three funny moments -- but, remarkably, there's more to the scenes you've by now surely seen 500 times in previews. In this day and age, leaving some of the funny stuff for the movie seems like an incredibly gallant gesture, and one you have to appreciate. The worst thing to be said about "Hitch" is that the end will come as no surprise to anyone. But it's a happy ending that actually feels like one, so, really, there's no catch.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some strong sexual references
Times guidelines: Sitcom-level sexual innuendo, somewhat stronger sexual language courtesy of villain.
Columbia Pictures presents an Overbrook Entertainment production, released by Sony Pictures. Director Andy Tennant. Producers James Lassiter, Will Smith, Teddy Zee. Executive producers Michael Tadross, Wink Mordaunt. Screenplay by Kevin Bisch. Director of photography Andrew Dunn. Editors Troy Takaki, Tracey Wadmore. Costume designer Marlene Stewart. Music George Fenton. Production designer Jane Musky. Art director B. Patricia Woodbridge. Set decorator Ellen Christiansen. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.