Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and that means in addition to a big advertising push for meaningless pieces of cardboard known as greetings cards, it’s time to start shipping out romantic comedies. Traditionally, this has been a time of year dominated by Jennifer Lopez. Now everyone hates her, so room has been made for others to slip in. Others like Debra Messing or in this case, Will Smith.
Taking a break from battling CGI creatures in summer blockbusters, Smith stars in Hitch as Alexander Hitchins: date consultant and all around pick-up expert. Think of Alex like a poor man’s Alfie, if Alfie ever had the wit to use his powers over women for personal profit beyond the obvious acquisition of trophy pussy. Alex has turned his skills into a profession, and helps hopeless men get the girls of their dreams by giving them a tune-up. Known in secret only as “The Date Doctor”, he works exclusively off referrals and does his best to stay firmly off the public’s radar.
Hitch’s latest case is Albert (Kevin James), an extremely fat accountant in love with his celebrity client, Allegra Cole (Amber Valetta). Other than an incident in which he lent her a pen, for the most part Allegra doesn’t know Albert exists. So Albert hires Hitch to turn him from a fat, disgusting, slob into a dateable commodity that might get the attention of a super-celebrity. Hitch has his work cut out for him. Kevin James has a real talent for being well, fat, and some of the film’s funniest moments come simply from James’s jiggly dance breaks. Smith and James have decent chemistry together, surprising when you consider that there may not be two people on the planet who have less in common.
Not content to focus on Albert’s dating conundrum, Hitch develops a second storyline in parallel as Alex meets a girl of his own, and comes somewhere near falling in love. Alex, as just about everyone in a romance movie seems to be, is afraid of getting hurt and long ago swore off long-term relationships. But Sara cuts through his layer of cool, turning him into something of a gibbering idiot. It’s a unique experience for the master of love as “The Date Doctor” finds himself smitten and unable to win her affections. Eva Mendes is pretty capable as a foil for Will’s little boy antics, and it’s nice to see her playing an upwardly mobile professional for a change instead of another street racing hoochie or ghetto hottie.
As things often do, both Albert and Hitch’s plans turn to disaster. The movie picks up its pace as they scramble around trying to scrape their dignity off the ground, and Albert has a great scene in which he battles a particularly cocky magazine stand. Hitch loses a bit more of his smooth exterior, though not all of it. Playing it cool comes naturally to Smith and I sincerely doubt he could stop it if he tried. Be glad Kevin James is a train wreck. He provides enough balance to keep us from wishing death on the overly perfect Alex Hitch.
In some ways, Hitch has the feel of an old Cary Grant movie, complete with all the suave dialogue and sweeping moments people came to expect from the romantic desk of Mr. Grant. By today’s standards, a lot of that is now a little cheesy. Though we accept it in older movies, in modern films that kind of discourse can sound somewhat coerced. Hitch does its best to update that sort of romance movie dynamic but can’t shake the slightly artificial feeling, no matter how much Will Smith turns up the charm. Smith by the way is at his best when he’s just spouting off. The film’s more heavily scripted lines of conversation seem to hamper him; he always appears more comfortable when he’s just riffing on something. Maybe the man needs to get into improv. It couldn’t hurt.
Still, Hitch is infinitely preferable to rooting for Jennifer Lopez to find love with her feather duster again or watching Meg Ryan pretend not to age. It’s easy to enjoy and deserves some credit for not battering the audience over the head with thick, gooey love moments. Instead, it goes for fun verbal sparring and goofy slapstick to tell its sappy story. It certainly doesn’t have an edge, but who wants that in a Valentine’s Day date movie anyway? Women will love it and men will find solace in a romance story told from a male perspective spiced with plenty of physical comedy. God help me, I think I even liked the throwback Fresh Prince dance party tacked on right before the closing credits. Made me feel like breaking out my Jams and pretending I was DJ Jazz Jeff. Hitch is a little uneven and cutesy but not so much that it isn’t still moderately acceptable. Had it taken a harder, direr approach, akin to last year’s downbeat remake of Alfie, it might have accomplished something more noteworthy—but then it also probably wouldn’t make any money.