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Directed by Andy Tennant
Writing credits (WGA) Kevin Bisch (written by)
Will Smith .... Alex 'Hitch' Hitchens
Eva Mendes .... Sara
Runtime: USA:115 min
Reviewed by Michael Dequina
Will Smith has proven to be such an immensely charismatic, easily likable, and effortlessly charming star in a variety of media, I always wondered why no one ever thought to cast him as a romantic lead. Now, after finally seeing him extend these qualities and his impeccable timing in the vastly enjoyable HITCH, it's downright unfathomable that it took so long for someone to use him in such a capacity, as he is as much a natural handling romantic comedy as he is saving the world on Fourth of July weekend.
Smith also serves as one of the film's producers, and it's quite easy to see why he shepherded the project through his own company. The character of Big Apple "date doctor" Alex "Hitch" Hitchens seems just about tailor-made for him, playing off of his well-established, smooth screen persona while comfortably allowing him to stretch into new territory. But far beyond its leading man, HITCH distinguishes itself from its ilk by being remarkably well-cast down the line, and in refreshing and unexpected ways. While it's no surprise that Kevin James, in his big screen debut as Albert Brennaman, one of the common man clients who enlists Hitch's expertise to woo the woman of his dreams; is effective as a slapsticky schlub with a way with a one-liner; but he also makes for a highly endearing romantic figure. Similarly, Amber Valletta obviously looks the part for Albert's wealthy, high-society object of affection Allegra Cole, but she also projects a surprising warmth under her model exterior, lending authenticity to Albert's contention that he can see and feel more to her beyond the image. As Sara Melas, the gossip columnist who comes to bewitch Hitch, Eva Mendes mixes the grit and spunk that she lent to her long line of law enforcement roles with her STUCK ON YOU comic spirit, making for a rom-com leading lady of atypical edge.
At initial glance, first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch's script does appear to be typical, as the scenario isn't particularly innovative by basic design. Slick guy who supposedly knows all the right moves falls for the one woman with whom everything goes wrong. Said woman is out to expose the mysterious "date doctor," not knowing that her new suitor is her target. The main subplot centers on an average joe pursuing a seemingly unattainable beauty. There are even trailer-ready set pieces such as the ’ber-cool Hitch teaching hapless Albert how to dance and Hitch suffering a rather cartoonish, face-swelling allergic reaction.
It's a shame (though not exactly surprising) that Sony's marketing campaign emphasizes such broad bits of business as those, as these scenes are not a terribly accurate reflection of what is a far more witty and urbane whole. Bisch and Tennant seem less concerned with the by-the-numbers plotting than the personality of the piece, and the attention to character and performance make the plot machinations easier to swallow. The unlikely pair of Albert and Allegra proves to be anything but, as James and Valletta's gentle chemistry sells them as a viable couple regardless of Hitch's helpful hints. On the flip side, Hitch's dates with Sara predictably go wrong, but in more unexpectedly complex (and, hence, funnier) ways that stem from his character's penchant for overplanning and overthinking. From that, one can see how Sara would be more amused than annoyed when things go awry; naturally her cynicism about all things romantic would fuel snarky bemusement, but his genuine sincerity behind the missteps and unforeseen mishaps believably keep her if not exactly interested, then intrigued. Sara's mission to uncover the date doctor's true identity is the least interesting thread in Bisch's script, but when the situation inevitably comes to a confrontation, he has the smarts to let the characters retain theirs, figuring out the situation without blatantly underscoring with on-the-nose dialogue.
The smartest thing about HITCH, however, is its revelatory use of its headlining star Smith. Opening the film with Hitch directly addressing the camera could have been a harbinger of precious, obnoxiously strained would-be hipness, but the ever-affable Smith is able to sell the gimmick and everything else thrown his way. Raucously roughhousing with James? Exuding effortless cool? Sporting silly facial prosthetics? Verbally sparring with and earnestly wooing Mendes? Smith pulls off all of the tasks required of him while giving them his own unmistakable flair. To play off of the Heavy D/Aaron Hall classic that closes HITCH, now that Smith has found a love story, what is Hollywood gonna do with him? I look forward to finding out.