Alex "Hitch" Hitchens is a dating doctor. Helping shy geeks land the girls of their dreams, Hitch teaches men to understand and respect women. Hitch's latest client is Albert (Kevin James, "The King of Queens"), a buffoonish accountant with the hots for his company's heiress, Allegra (Amber Valletta, "Raising Helen"). While Hitch finds difficulty educating Albert in the smooth ways of courtship, his attention is stolen by Sara (Eva Mendes), a chilly gossip columnist who challenges Hitch's fast-talking, charismatic ways. Looking to do some wooing of his own, Hitch's plans are thwarted when he learns that she's out to uncover his line of work.
If you're not counting the homoerotic overtones found in the "Bad Boys" movies, I guess it's safe to say that "Hitch" (IMDb listing) is Will Smith's first foray into a romantic comedy. It's surprising that Smith, an actor who has built a career around one big, boisterous personality, hasn't tried one of these films before. But the bigger surprise is that "Hitch" ends up being a milquetoast and forgettable motion picture even with Smith in the driver's seat.
"Hitch" really is two movies for the price of one. While Smith's character dominates the marketing and the title, bumbling-student-of-love Albert takes up a large amount of screentime with his wooing of Allegra. Unexpectedly, this is where "Hitch" is most funny and assured, tossing away (or at least pretending to) its contrived and sluggish script in favor of romantic slapstick good times, with Kevin James inhaling Chris Farley's ashes and unabashedly flopping around. This section of the film also features a very small but agreeable turn from model-cum-actress Amber Valletta. This takes the pressure off of Smith, who gets great comic mileage playing straight man to James, allowing the warmly rotund comedian to steal a sizeable number of scenes from the star. Their moments of romantic training are the film's highlight, and they make an appealing team, too.
When the focus falls back to Hitch's romantic entanglements with Sara, the film is far less interesting. Because "Hitch" doesn't offer anything new to the genre, the hackneyed paths it takes seem extra painful because they stop the film dead. Filmmaker Andy Tennant isn't much of a director to begin with ("Sweet Home Alabama"), and he doesn't seem to realize that his film gives up on being a comedy in its second half. Smith and Eva Mendes liven up the sometimes bizarre nature of the script (a jet ski sequence set in New York City?) with their charm, especially Mendes, who has never been this charismatically flexible onscreen. But when the brutal script machinations start to impede on their chemistry for no good reason other than to further a story the film doesn't really even need, it destroys the minimal amount of fun "Hitch" has, and makes it start to feel like a college lecture. Clocking in at just under two hours, there's a lot of dramatic fat in "Hitch" that needed to be trimmed to sharpen the focus.
While he has his expected moment of unforgivable cockiness (in an excruciating restaurant scene with a randy client), Will Smith's turn here as Hitch is a nice change of pace from the forgettable F/X and action bonanzas that have been filling his dance card the last few years. It's just too bad that Smith wanted to play it so safe and so easy when "Hitch" could've benefited from a stronger vision and much bigger laughs.
Filmfodder Grade: C