Jamie Foxx has talked about his fear of getting "the fame face" - a complacent look that sometimes comes with show-biz success. Will Smith hasn't gotten there yet, but he should be wary of making more choices like Hitch.
Smith deserves a smidgen of respect for what he does with this picture. He's agreeably smooth. His very presence puts velveteen on the rickety works of this slaphappy, sap-heavy farce and allows it to run pleasantly for about an hour. Yet he can't keep the movie from stopping cold with another hour left to go.
Hitch will be a sizable hit. Audiences ache for romantic comedies at this time of year, and Hitch is as soft as a Valentine pillow embroidered with nostrums and surrounded by sugar and spice and everything nice. But afterward, fans may feel that the film has bought their affections cheap, with Smith's savoir-faire, some surefire low gags and a final bout of daffy dancing that leaves the audience laughing - and should leave the filmmakers laughing all the way to box-office supremacy.
Director Andy Tennant and writer Kevin Bisch think they've concocted a relatively adult light comedy. But here's what this little boy's fantasy is made of: a professional "date doctor" (Smith), Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, who coaches woebegone males on how to land the women of their dreams - but will do it only if his clients are actually in love; a New York gossip columnist (Eva Mendes) who boasts a more-human-than-J.Lo allure and lives in an apartment that only a top editor could afford; and a chubby accountant (Kevin James) who becomes Hitch's greatest challenge when he sets his cap for gorgeous heiress Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta).
Coincidentally, the date doctor, without divulging his true occupation, begins to court the gossip columnist just when she becomes ruthlessly focused on Ms. Cole. Obviously, no good, in the short term, and all good, in the long term, will come of this. Too bad Tennant and Bisch fumble the essential romantic-comedy trick of making the far-fetched and obvious enjoyable with wit, invention or absurdity.
They try for screwball pranks when Hitch stumbles through his dates with his own amorous ideal, Mendes. But the pratfalls reflect nothing at his core - they're just tacked-on routines, pinned to the tail of a date doctor turned donkey. When Hitch's face bizarrely bloats because of a food allergy, all it does is allow viewers to giggle at Smith being such a good sport while his character guzzles antihistamines and Mendes gets to see his softest side. By then, the movie has already bogged down with a stone-dead subplot about a misogynistic Wall Street wheeler-dealer who (as we once said in high school) "uses" Mendes' best friend and wrongly sullies Hitch in Mendes' eyes.
Even after the characters pass that hurdle, the movie keeps going and going and going, as relentlessly as the Energizer bunny, but without the charm. Tennant and Bisch spend most of the movie selling the amusement value of Hitch's half-insights and semi-truths, then force their hero to see the shallowness of his ways. They toss corn into the gears of the movie's comic mechanism.
That bouncy butterball James takes Hitch's place as the male muse of love. James, TV's King of Queens, has already been over-praised for his exuberant, head-over-heels grab for movie stardom. But he's as irritating as an overfed puppy, with an over-professional knack for being klutzy and adorable.
Former supermodel Valletta brings something fresher to the wedding table: furtive expressions of quirky fun and innocence beneath all her blond glamour. Alfred Hitchcock would have loved her. That's the only reason this movie earns the right to use his nickname: Hitch.
Starring Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James
Directed by Andy Tennant
Released by Sony
Time 118 minutes