THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


People I know who are married all agree on one thing: it’s great to not be in the singles scene anymore. Due to our culture’s busy workaday lifestyle (and the fact that many people carry armloads of baggage), meeting someone nice is extremely hard these days. I frequently feel a sense of relief when I realize that my search is complete and I do not have to deal with being single anymore. To help those who are still looking, a number of dating assistance techniques have cropped up, including online dating services, self-help books, and that bizarre phenomenon known as “speed dating.” The movie Hitch pokes some gentle fun at the way hooking people up has become such a big business.

Will Smith plays Alex Hitchens, a “date doctor” who works with shy or insecure men, teaching them how to approach women with confidence and grace. Or that’s what he claims, at least. Hitch is a smooth operator who knows how to institute a plan. Among his clients is a socially awkward accountant named Albert Brenneman (Kevin James), who is in love with his client Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). Because she is a famous and wealthy socialite, Allegra does not instantly notice Albert. Hitch finds a way to make Albert stand out, then gives him lessons on dancing and kissing.

Hitch knows all the right moves when it comes to other people, but when he meets a girl he genuinely likes, he falls apart. She is Sara (Eva Mendes), a gossip columnist for a major New York newspaper. Sara and Hitch have good chemistry, although he is so flustered by his feelings for her that he becomes a babbling, clumsy train wreck of a human being around her. During one of their dates, he accidentally kicks her in the head; during another, he gets food poisoning and puffs up like a balloon. Perhaps not so coincidentally, he never tells her exactly what he does for a living.

There are really two funny ideas in Hitch. The first is the idea of a date doctor. It’s funny watching the suave Hitch trying to coach painfully insecure men. The scene in which Hitch teaches Albert to dance is especially funny. The accountant wants to drop some flashy moves (a la Usher), but Hitch knows that this will only come off looking silly. He tries to reign Albert in. The film has some fun examining the desperation that comes with the modern singles scene, as everyone struggles to present an impossibly polished image of themselves. Will Smith and Kevin James really sell the material because they’re so good at playing the extremes of the characters. Smith has always excelled at comic bravado, and James is willing to milk every ounce of humor from Albert’s schlubby personality.

The other funny idea is that of a guy who can solve everyone else’s romantic problems but not his own. There’s some truth to that concept, right? We have seen Will Smith have romances on screen before, but this is the first time he’s been in an outright romantic comedy. It’s a good fit for him. Eva Mendes has a playful chemistry with the star. Together, they seem like two people who really would enjoy each other’s company. It’s fun watching him try – and fail – so hard to be cool around her.

I definitely liked parts of the movie, but despite some real strengths, it never quite worked as well as I would have liked. Call it a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Here is precisely where Hitch falters: it has Sara trail the famous Allegra, seeking dish about the woman’s private life. In doing so, she discovers Albert, whose trail leads back to Hitch. By the end, the story has devolved into one of those annoying “mixed communications” comedies. Sara blames Hitch for “manipulating” women, while he blames her for exploiting Albert in the papers. Naturally, these issues put a strain on their own relationship (momentarily, of course). It would have been smarter not to cross the story lines. Have the Hitch/Albert plot be one half of the movie and have the Hitch/Sara plot be the other. Albert and Sara should never cross paths.

There’s also another misbegotten subplot involving Sara’s best friend, who is used and abused by a guy who tried to hire Hitch. Sara thinks Hitch coached the pig on how to get her friend into bed; Hitch is appalled that his motives would ever be called into question. Again, it’s a case of too much extraneous material. We just want to see Hitch and Albert fall in love, win the hearts of the women, and live happily ever after. There are so many other unnecessary complications that I was distracted from the genuine pleasures of the two primary plots.

(It’s also worth mentioning that all the really funny bits were given away in the film’s preview, thereby lessening their impact.)

Hitch falls into that weird gray area of movies I sort of liked, but sort of didn’t. It is a perfectly pleasant film to sit through, but it never gelled into much more than an assemblage of standard romantic comedy cliches. The performers are terrific, but the screenplay could have used the services of a “date movie doctor.”

( 1/2 out of four)

Hitch is rated PG-13 for language and some sexual situations. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.

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