The Manhattan in which Hitch takes place doesn’t exist in reality. This is the twinkly, fairy-tale Manhattan of a thousand movies that fancy themselves urbane romantic comedies, all bustling streets and glowing skylines and walks through Central Park. It’s a world where a portly, stumbling hump of a guy actually has a shot with a socialite heiress, and where extremely public proclamations of true love lead directly to the happily-ever-after, usually accompanied by people in the movie cueing us to applaud with their own applause.
There are people whose movie menus consist almost entirely of cinematic wish fulfillment fantasies like this, every first-act “meet cute” nestled snuggly against its second-act montage and its third-act impediment to happiness. Perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge those folks their silly romantic comedies, as they dream futile dreams of their own big love in the big city. And it would be a lot easier to let bygones be bygones if not for the most annoying side effect of these glossy trifles: movie stars who refuse to be remotely unsympathetic.
Now I feel where Will Smith is coming from in Hitch. He’s a big-time star, ready to graduate from action movie hero to sophisticated romantic leading man. He’s charming and likeable—a knockout on the Hollywood indicator of public popularity and familiarity called the “Q-rating”—and his agents and handlers know it. You never, ever screw with the Q.
But here’s what happens when these star-vehicle scripts get Q-rated to within an inch of their lives: the movies are booooooooring. Smith’s character, Alex “Hitch” Hitchens, has somehow managed to make a comfortable living out of being a shadowy “date doctor,” guiding clueless men on making a good first impression. Why Hitch needs to remain anonymous to do his business is perhaps fuel for a different rant—it’s necessary here because, well, the plot demands that it be necessary.
Let’s focus instead on that lost filmmaking concept of the “character arc”—you know, that wacky idea that a story should be about someone growing or learning something. Hitch eventually hooks up with Sara (Eva Mendes), a workaholic tabloid gossip journalist, which ordinarily should be the impetus toward some kind of epiphany. Maybe he’ll mature, easing out of the mentality of a cocky player. Maybe he’ll be a nicer guy when all is said and done.
No, wait—he’s already the nicest guy in the universe. Despite apparently possessing the ability to twist women to his every whim—either directly or by proxy—Hitch only uses his powers for good. He forcefully rejects a potential client who makes known his desire only to sleep with his target, rather than fall in love with her. Flashbacks show us the college heartbreak that scarred him. He fumbles his way through his initial dates with Sara not because he’s incapable of applying in his own life what he so blithely dispenses to others—now that might have been funny—but simply because it humanizes him and makes him more endearing. Apparently bitch-slapping caddish guys and crying in the rain at his girlfriend’s car window weren’t enough to impress his sensitivity upon us.
What it all adds up to is a colossal snooze of a story, one where the only brief sparks of life come from Kevin James. He plays Hitch’s client Albert, the dorky accountant who has fallen in love with Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), a screenwriter’s version of what Paris Hilton might be like if she possessed a soul. Albert’s also Nice with a capital N, but at least there are a few edges to him that haven’t been polished to a blinding shine.
Polished, however, is the way movies like Hitch are supposed to be, especially those directed by a master hacksman like Andy Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama, Ever After). Anything resembling a prickly personality trait—even one that the character may eventually abandon as he or she evolves—risks ruining the sweet inoffensiveness of it all; the only remotely real thing in Hitch is a gay male-to-straight male ratio that actually approximates Manhattan. Making one of these romantic comedies is like making a smoothie, taking everything that might get stuck in your throat and pulverizing it into something you can slurp down with a straw. So congratulations, Will. Your Q-rating is intact, and you’ve succeeded in reducing moviemaking to its bland, liquid essence.
HITCH *.5 Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James Rated PG-13