Hooked up

Despite a conventional plot, Hitch brings plenty of fun to the romantic comedy

HOUSE CALL The “date doctor” is in, as Hitch (Will Smith) helps the hapless Albert (Kevin James) learn all the right moves to woo a beautiful heiress in Andy Tennant’s <i>Hitch</i>.

HOUSE CALL The “date doctor” is in, as Hitch (Will Smith) helps the hapless Albert (Kevin James) learn all the right moves to woo a beautiful heiress in Andy Tennant’s Hitch.

Starring Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James and Amber Valletta. Directed by Andy Tennant. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0

As a proven specialist in masculine cool, Will Smith would seem to be perfect for the role of a “date doctor”—a high-priced consultant/guru who teaches dorky guys how to get the attention of desirable women who otherwise might not even notice them at all.

The catch is that Hitch is a romantic comedy, and in the title role Smith is required to show sensitivity, amiability and even tender vulnerability as well as his customary wisecracking, smart-mouth toughness. And the nicest surprise in the film is not just that Smith handles all of that well enough, but that he also scales his work down for a snug fit with the comic ensemble that is the true key to this film’s appeal.

Director Andy Tennant and screenwriter Kevin Bisch have concocted a fairly conventional plot in which one of Hitch’s clients, a chunky accountant named Albert (Kevin James), pursues a glamorous celebrity heiress (Amber Valletta), while Hitch himself is getting involved with an aggressive gossip columnist named Sara (Eva Mendes), who, like him, has a mildly neurotic tendency to come on strong while also playing hard to get. A deceptively minor subplot has Sara’s girl pal (Julie Ann Emery) enduring a romantic misadventure with an obnoxious executive who claims to be a Hitch client.

With special help from Sara’s strenuous efforts on behalf of tabloid journalism, a series of misunderstandings ensues all around, and each of the romances undergoes a potentially fatal crisis. But that well-worn plot is used mainly as an excuse for a string of lively set pieces—Hitch and Sara making a special visit to Ellis Island, Albert and the heiress bonding at a pro basketball game, Hitch recovering from a dinner-date mishap by getting drunk on Benadryl, Albert’s first kiss.

Hitch, who undergoes some changes himself, is the film’s guiding light, but James’ goofily frenetic performance as the bullishly overeager Albert is what gives the film its greatest emotional appeal and its true comic heart. Smith’s scenes with James are the most winning parts of the film, and James’ scenes with Valletta give the film its most charming and persuasive moments of romance.

In a mild paradox, James-Valletta make an unlikely couple pleasingly plausible, while Smith-Mendes, ostensibly a perfect match, seem too often on the edge of implausibility. But Tennant and company treat it all with a generous good-naturedness, and the result is routine entertainment of a thoroughly enjoyable sort.