On the face of it, a high-stakes Hollywood blockbuster bankrolled by powerful white guys about a young black guy who massages the romantic mojos of—who else?—powerful white guys makes a ripe critical target. Luckily for the PWGs at Columbia, Hitch mostly sidesteps such high-handed carping with disarming charm, penetrating wit, and a refreshing insouciance about its own potentially problematic contrivances. While far from perfect, Hitch is a rare studio product that earns the goodwill it smugly demands.
Timed for Valentine’s Day (speaking of contrivances), the film is a superficially cynical rom-com with a heart of mush. It centers on the efforts of Manhattan-based “date doctor” Alex Hitchens (Will Smith) to bolster the self-esteem and corresponding layability of schlubs like Albert (Kevin James, of TV’s The King of Queens), an accountant who pines for a fetching heiress (Amber Valletta). Hitch, natch, is operating from suppressed longings of his own, and, as such movies go, his smooth-operator persona is duly challenged by Sara (Eva Mendes), a scandal-rag columnist with a Teflon ticker to match his own.
While much of the movie’s appeal hinges on your tolerance for Smith’s goofy, self-amused mugging, Hitch maintains a surprising ensemble feel throughout. Director Andy Tennant gives the rest of the cast room to relax and show off, and as a result James proves himself an exceptional physical comic. He and Smith are especially good together, and the star (who also co-produced) is generous enough to let himself be upstaged. It helps that Tennant keeps things moving along briskly without ever seeming rushed, and that cinematographer Andrew Dunn has a keen eye for urban luster—despite a fondness for working NYC’s overexposed architectural tourist trash into his setups.
Of course, Hitch‘s central assertion that every player is a damaged romantic doomed to thwart his or her innermost desires until they wilt to nothing is highly debatable (though I’m in no position to make that call—I don’t even play the lottery), and to say the movie oversimplifies the myriad bewilderments of intimacy is a gross understatement. But it also humanizes characters whose callous machinations would otherwise be repugnant, and their ineptitude at love suggests something fairly daring for a date flick—that as a culture we’re perilously close to losing the art of mating. Hitch also mitigates its questionable psychology by routinely taking the piss out of itself. When Alex escorts Sara to Ellis Island on a surprise date, for instance, what begins as an eye-rollingly saccharine set piece with bizarre racial overtones ends by hilariously exploding the flag- and dick-waving bathos a dumber movie would’ve reveled in.
Alas, Hitch peaks early, and once its good ideas dwindle, all that’s left is to wait for the guys to get the girls (or vice versa). This process takes long enough to become a deficit, but even at its most ploddingly plot-dependent the film remains amusingly self-aware: In the protracted denouement, Sara demands of her flummoxed suitor, “Hitch—is that a noun or a verb?” It’s a labored pun, but better-regarded comedies have made lesser demands of their audiences than to ponder grammatical distinctions.