Smith plays a matchmaker in the film, but the story of his character's love life lacks interest.
By DAVID GERMAIN
Will Smith waited a long time to bring his bottomless charisma to a romantic comedy. He should have waited longer, at least until the many hitches were ironed out of "Hitch," an occasionally cute trifle that had all the ingredients to be a great date flick.
Instead, "Hitch" offers a few laughs and the odd smarter-than-average romantic exchange between Smith and co-star Eva Mendes before veering into a foolish plot conflict that drains all credibility and chokes off whatever goodwill the movie built up in its first half.
With no clear notion of where to take the story, director Andy Tennant ("Sweet Home Alabama") and first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch let "Hitch" meander to tiresome lengths and force the lead players to stumble through a sappy conclusion that drags on interminably.
Playing a professional Manhattan "date doctor" helping hopeless men snare the women of their dreams, Smith's enormous charm carries the movie much of the way, buoyed by scene-stealing moments from Kevin James as a lovelorn accountant.
Smith's Alex "Hitch" Hitchens is a master at hooking up geeks with mates seemingly light years out of their reach.
Hitch only takes on decent guys as clients, men who will treat a woman like a queen through a lifetime of commitment. And while he does coach his pupils through Cyrano de Bergerac-like pretense, there is no malicious deceit involved.
Hitch simply opens the door to romantic possibilities and counts on the essential goodness of his disciples to seal the deal.
"With no guile and no game, there is no girl," is one of Hitch's many pithy mottoes.
For all his optimism on others' behalf, Hitch has closed himself off to the prospect of romance because of a painful love affair that left him crying in the rain years earlier. An awkward flashback presents the story, which lacks conviction as to why such a self-assured man cannot rebound from a garden-variety heartbreak.
When Hitch finally meets his own dream woman, gossip columnist Sara Melas (Mendes), she turns out to be as cynical about personal romance as he. Hitch's ploys to catch Sara's eye, and the clever but calamitous first date he plans, offer some brightly refreshing moments in the tired boy-meets-girl genre.
The movie quickly loses that momentum as "Hitch" begins to wallow in superficial romantic mush. And rather than letting the story develop authentically from Hitch and Sara's innate resistance to intimacy, the filmmakers try to forcibly inject dramatic friction by creating professional discord between the lovers.
After this clunky artifice, Hitch and Sara's relationship becomes more and more antic-oriented, devolving into bad slapstick and dialogue that includes some literal gibberish during the prolonged finale.
Far more engaging is the undercard romance involving Hitch's client Albert Brennaman ("King of Queens" star James), a meek, tubby accountant smitten by beautiful heiress Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta).
James displays wonderful flair for broad physical comedy while instilling depth and pathos into a character that on the page would read as a one-dimensional loser. Valletta likewise makes Amber's passion for this portly nobody believable; as0 Sara observes while spying on them at a Knicks game, Albert and Amber are adorable together.
Also in its favor, "Hitch" makes fine use of New York settings, including Ellis Island, trendy lower Manhattan and the Hudson River waterfront.
Because this is a Will Smith flick, and a romance opening over Valentine's weekend to boot, audiences will jam theaters for "Hitch." But it's a shaky transition from action movies to love stories for Smith when he's outshone by both his surroundings and a pudgy bean-counter.