Hitch: Romantic Comedy Starring Will Smith

As a genre, the Hollywood romantic comedy has been stale for decades, and the infusion of new blood, in front and behind the cameras, is very much needed.

I therefore went to Will Smith’s new romantic comedy, Hitch, full of hopes and expectations, due to the fact that it’s the debut of the charismatic star in this genre.  Though Smith is one of Hollywood’s most popular actors, a romantic heartthrob since his rapper days and a proven comedic talent since the long-running TV series, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, he has never starred in a romantic comedy before.

I was also glad that the leading lady is a relatively new, up-and-coming Eva Mendes (seen opposite Denzel Washington in the crime noir, Out of Time). Very much in the vein of Jeniffer Lopez, though not as luminously photogenic, Mendes shows strong potential as a star. With the right coaching and more experience, she may emerge as a major star, now that Lopez is pushing 40.

Speaking of age: Meg Ryan, who has kept the genre afloat for over a decade in excellent (When Harry Met Sally), good (Sleepless in Seattle) mediocre (the sequel, You’ve Got Mail, also with Hanks), and bad (Hanging Up) is aging and not too gracefully, as was evident in her films last year (Against the Ropes). Sandra Bullock, the other reliable romantic comedy star, is also over 40, though her recent vehicles, Miss Congeniality and Two-Week Notice, continue to attract large audiences.

So who’s left Renee Zellweger of the Bridget Jones movies, and Nicole Kidman, whose remake last summer, The Stepford Wives, was an artistic and commercial disappointment, though it was not her fault. I can’ get too excited about Kidman’s upcoming comedy, Bewitched, inspired by the popular TV series, since it is from the technically incompetent Nora Ephron.

Regrettably, Andy Tennant’s Hitch is a dissatisfying experience, an utterly predictable by-the-number comedy that suffers from poor direction, excessive running time (by a good half an hour), last reel that self-destructs, and weak chemistry between Smith and Mendes. Here is a date movie that doesn’t encourage you to date, a romance in which Smith enjoys greater rapport with his male costars than with his love interest. That said, the PG-13, the only major comedy to be released during Valentine’s Weekend, should have a strong opening if no particularly long legs at the box-office.

Structured as an urban fairytale, in Hitch, the streets of glorious Manhattan substitute for the more familiar locale, forests, in classic folktales. In this wannabe sophisticated comedy, Alex “Hitch” Hitchens is a legendary–and deliberately anonymous–New York City “date doctor,” a younger and hipper version of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, except he’s dealing in affairs of the heart rather than sex. For a good fee, Hitch has helped countless men to woo the women of their dreams.

While coaching Albert (Kevin James), a meek accountant smitten with a glamorous celebrity, Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), Hitch finally meets his match in the person of the gorgeous, whip-smart Sara Melas (Mendes), a gossip columnist who follows Allegra for her newspaper.

As expected, Hitch is a doctor who advises and helps others but can’t help himself. Though a proud bachelor, Hitch suddenly finds himself falling deliriously in love with Sara, a reporter whose biggest scoop could well mean his unmasking as Manhattan’s most famous date doctor. On the surface, Hitch seems tailored to Smith’s considerable talents. The story involves a cool, cocky man who makes a good living by helping shy, socially inept men approach and win over their dream-fantasy women.

Seemingly confident around women, Hitch is proud to transmit his wisdom and knowledge to other needy men. Hitch’s motto, as he repeatedly proclaims, is: No matter what, no matter when, no matter whom, any man has a chance to sweep any woman off her feet. He just needs the right broom. According to his philosophy, it only takes three dates to illuminate the right you and appeal to the woman of your dreams.

In moments, but only in moments, Hitch captures the unique, unmistakable New York feel, through a contemporary tone and hip locations (hot bars, chic restaurants), though the music is inexplicably retro disco.

The novelty of the story is that it’s told from a man’s POV, which is rare in romantic comedies. However, there’s too much voice-over narration by Smith, particularly in the film’s first chapters.

The sharply uneven screenplay is based on Kevin Bisch’s college experiences, when, after a series of dates with different women, he would wound up sitting on their beds going through photo albums. Trying to understand why these women were fixated on showing him their albums, Bisch realized they were just killing time, waiting for him to kiss them. Some of the film’s few poignant and hilarious sequences revolve around that experience. We see variations of how dates end up at the door, outside the women’s apartment, with women nervously playing with the keys, waiting to be kissed.

Trying to reduce it to a scientific formula, Hitch instructs Albert to do 90 percent of the kissing process, bringing his face closer and closer to his woman’s, but then wait for the last, crucial ten percent of the kissing to be initiated and executed by his date.

As a character, Hitch begins as an alchemist, who takes what is and transforms it into what could be. When he first meets the guys, Hitch asks them if they’re truly in love with the woman they’re trying to win, because without that, he can’t help them. Ironically, Hitch has no special relationship in his own life, because he’s still wounded from a heartbreak back in college, vowing to never again open himself up to love.

The movie is based on a rather universal fantasy, men’s memory of one particular girl from high school they were in love with. Out of camaraderie, and the need to make good living to maintain his luxurious lifestyle, Hitch has made it his life’s work to ensure that other men are spared that fate.

Hitch’s saving grace is that he’s only borderline jaded or cynical about the mating game. Deep down, he believes that every guy–except himself–can meet and woo his fantasy femme. He operates out of a mixture of noble altruism as well as pathetic masochism.

Rather disappointingly, Tennant, who had displayed romantic comedy chops in such hits as Sweet Home Alabama (with Reese Witherspoon) and Ever After (with Drew Barrymore), directs his new film in a loose yet rambling mode, resulting in an awkwardly-paced, sharply uneven comedy, in which the audience is always three steps ahead of the characters and their mishaps. The filmmakers borrow heavily from the far superior Jerry Maguire, which is referred to in Hitch, with the scene in which Tom Cruise woos Renee Zellweger.

Occasionally, there are some witty lines and poignant observations. Hitch’s date doctor’s rules, which are part of long-standing tradition of the love game, are expressed when he tells an insecure client: “She wants the real you, but she just doesn’t want it all at once.” This element will struck a chord with men and women who have been completely overwhelm with their emotions but are not aware of the principle of “a controlled release,” of the necessity to play some archaic courtship games that have prevailed for centuries, despite radical technological and economic changes.

The central irony is that, while Hitch proves himself effective in helping other men find love, his smooth, practiced, and calculated approach doesn’t seem to work on Sara, a beautiful reporter who works for a New York tabloid newspaper, which leaves him stymied and intrigued. You get the impression that, for the first time in his life, Hitch has met someone who also has it all figured out.

Most men have felt at one time or another that, no matter what they do, “the whole universe is conspiring against them,” forcing them to disclose their innermost feelings rather than play manipulative games. Hitch builds on the long-cherished notion in romantic comedies that it takes one special woman, Sara, to bring out the vulnerable, awkward geek inside most men.

The beautiful Mendes, who has appeared in Stuck on You and 2 Fast 2 Furious, is a talent to watch, though she needs to be both lighter and more light-hearted. Mendes is competent in the scenes in which Hitch tries to set up dates with her, and they all go horribly wrong. Sara is a self-delusional woman, who thinks she needs to keep her guard up so she can succeed as a career woman, but she–and the audience knows–that she’s hopelessly romantic.

Stealing many scenes, Kevin James, who makes a feature debut, has wonderful moments as Albert Brennaman, Hitch’s new client who’s sorely in need of a “date doctor’s” help. Known for the hit TV series The King of Queens, James makes a smooth transition to physical comedy. Albert represents the most insecure aspect in all men, the overweight klutz who wear the wrong clothes and says the wrong things at the wrong time. Yet he, too, is hopelessly in love after meeting Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), a beautiful socialite who knows him only as one out of many accountants.

“It’s not as easy at it looks,” James Lassiter, Smith’s producing partner, is quoted in the press notes. “There aren’t many romantic comedies out there and even fewer that are any good.” If Hitch is the best romantic vehicle Lassiter could find for the gifted Smith, there’s good reason to despair about the genre’s very future.