February 12, 2005

MOVIES: Hitch (Andy Tennant, 2005)

Will Smith finally makes his romantic-comedy debut in Hitch, and while the material isn't terribly original, Smith and the rest of the cast are immensely likable, making the movie reasonably entertaining.

Smith plays Alex Hitchens, the "Date Doctor" who helps hapless men court the women they love by training them in the "basic principles" of dating and relationships. His current client is Albert (Kevin James), the junior member of the accounting team working for heiress Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), who is a celebrity for no apparent reason beyond her wealth; she's like Paris Hilton with a brain.

This is Hitch's greatest challenge. Albert's a likable guy, but not particularly handsome, and Allegra's a wealthy beauty who wouldn't normally even notice him. James and Valletta have their work cut out for them to make the pairing convincing, and for the most part, they pull it off. James is particularly good, with a real flair for broad physical comedy and a sweetness that shines through his outer schlub.

Of course, for all his success as a dating consultant to other men, Hitch's own romantic life has never been terribly successful, and he can't seem to make his own principles work when he finds himself falling for gossip columnist Sara (Eva Mendes). For a long time, we're left wondering why they seem not to realize how perfect they are for each other. This is, of course, the standard romantic comedy question, but it's particularly problematic here because the movie takes too long to set up the principal obstacle to their relationship, Sara's attempt to discover for her newspaper the identity of the "Date Doctor."

Smith is effortlessly charming here, and you can't help but root for him; Mendes, in her largest role yet, is lovely and funny. Their first meeting, a self-referential barroom dialogue in which Hitch and Sara flirt their way through a description of their own flirting, is very nicely done.

Sure, you can see all of the plot twists coming, and there aren't many original moments in the movie. But formulas become formulas because -- when they're done right -- they work, and Hitch works well enough to be a pleasant diversion.

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