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Hitch   B-

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Andy Tennant
Writer: Kevin Bisch
Cast: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James, Amber Valletta, Julie Ann Emery, Robinne Lee, Michael Rapaport, Adam Arkin.

Review by Rob Vaux

Will Smith is an interesting paradox for me. I like him no matter what he's in, and yet no matter what he's in, I rarely like it. Smith has a gift for picking mediocre material and then rising above it. He exudes an appeal unseen since the days of Cary Grant, and for all the forgettable piffle he's appeared in, his persona is utterly unblemished. Then along comes Hitch and suddenly, a quiet breakthrough is made. Here at last, Smith's star power becomes the sole purpose of the exercise, allowed to shine for its glory alone. The film is a standard-issue rom-com in almost every respect, but the irresistible charm of its lead pushes it over the top.

Okay, Kevin James helps too, playing a rolly Sancho Panza to Smith's dashing Don Quixote. In fact, James has some wildly funny moments all to himself, taking center stage while Smith gracefully steps into the background. There's something inherently amusing about tubby men dancing, and James almost single-handedly justifies the price of admission in the handful of scenes where he lets his groove thing shake. Together, the pair is strong enough to support Hitch's otherwise unremarkable chassis. Smith plays Alex Hitchens, a romantic therapist who teaches awkward men how to land the women of their dreams. James is his client, Albert Brennaman, a human sinkhole pulling all notions of suave masculinity into a massive abyss of Dork. Hitch signs on to help him win a stunningly beautiful billionaire heiress (Amber Valletta), who in any universe outside of movies like this would never register his existence. All goes well until Hitch himself falls for a New York gossip columnist (the very lovely Eva Mendes), an act that becomes his personal kryptonite. Suddenly, he's the one stumbling over the furniture and mistiming his advances, just as Albert strikes the romantic mother lode.

The scenario sounds trite, but it stays together for the film's admittedly excessive length and has ample opportunities for humor. Simply put, we buy Smith as the coolest cat on the planet, able to make a career out of bringing Fred Astaire smoothness to the Shemps and Curlys of the world. His opening lines ring true, his body language is confident but non-threatening, and his advice leaves men in the audience asking, "Why didn't I think of that?" Director Andy Tennant places him and his cohorts in a fairy-tale world of ultra-successful New Yorkers. Like Sex and the City with a Y chromosome, everyone has great apartments, wonderful jobs, and tickets to fabulous parties; it's just the whole romance thing that's got them confused. The setting works well with Hitchens' modus operandi, giving Smith plenty of chances to strut his stuff while providing James with some great hard walls to bounce off of. The dialogue is chipper, the settings pleasing and fun, and the ladies are all inhumanly gorgeous.

That last bit, unfortunately, is where Hitch finds its biggest problems. For while Smith and James take the lion's share of screen time, there's little left for the objects of their affection. Mendes has nice chemistry with her leading man, but she's definitely the junior half of their partnership, responding to him rather than establishing any energy of her own. The script treats her and the other female characters as semi-liberated trophies: smart-talking career gals who secretly want nothing more than the right guy to marry. (It goes without saying that the film features plenty of overweight male nebbishes, while women exhibiting anything short of physical perfection are nowhere to be found.) The objectification is subtle yet undeniable, another sign that Hollywood still doesn't get it when it comes to women.

That feeling gets worse during Hitch's embarrassingly routine crisis phase (the part where rain clouds threaten to break up our happy couples). It hinges on an act of real nastiness from Mendes, painting her in a supremely bitchy light, and threatening to derail the proceedings in a rash of unpleasantness. Some nimble plotting helps skirt total disaster, but it still leaves a bad taste around the film's finale and Mendes -- as charming as anyone could ask for -- shouldn't be saddled with such ugliness.

But flaws like this, as regrettable as they are, also give the man on the billboard a reason to justify his salary. The questions and problems are no match for Smith's dazzling smile, high-watt charisma, or the way he slides into the material like a well-worn shoe. Thanks to him, the shortcomings remain largely in the tolerable range, while the rest of the film frees him up to do what he does best. Hitch still isn't fully worthy of Smith's talents (he has yet to find a film that is) but at least it reminds us just how much talent he has. Old-fashioned star power can do wonders for an otherwise creaky vehicle. In this case, the star is up to the task and the vehicle is all the better for it.

Review published 02.10.2005.

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