Where theres a Will

Will Smith makes history, sort of, by romancing non-black star in Hitch

HITCH directed by Andy Tennant, written by Kevin Bisch, with Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James and Amber Valletta. A Sony/Columbia Pictures release. Opens Friday (February 11). 116 minutes. For venues and times, see page 107. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

After battling aliens and robots, playing a biopic boxer and a cartoon shark, Will Smith can now cross the words “romantic comedy” off his movie to-do list.

It’s a bigger deal than it seems at first.

All romcoms are race-specific. Meg Ryan gets sleepless over Tom Hanks. Tom Cruise completes Renée Zellweger. And Nia Long’s Best Man turns out to be Taye Diggs.

When was the last time you saw a black actor woo a non-black actor in a mainstream comedy that wasn’t about the difference in their race?

That’s right: never. Until now. Sort of.

In Hitch, Smith plays Alex “Hitch” Hitchens, a so-called Love Doctor who dispenses advice to lonely single straight men, flashing his dimples and charming the headset phone off Eva Mendes’s jaded gossip columnist’s pretty head.

Gee, maybe Mendes’s Latin background makes her more acceptable to Hollywood than if she were a WASP. Remember, she also played opposite Denzel Washington in Out Of Time and Training Day.

Hitch says things like “With no guile and no game, there’s no girl” to schlubs like Albert Brennaman (Kevin James), an accountant who’s in love with a wealthy socialite named Allegra Cole (supermodel Amber Valletta).

At the same time, Hitch can’t quite hit it off with Mendes’s Sara. Both have intimacy issues. Mendes has heard every line in the book, while Hitch was burned back in college — by a black woman, no less.

Apart from the casting, generous use of Manhattan locations and some hilarious sight gags, there’s nothing much original about Andy (Sweet Home Alabama) Tennant’s film or first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch’s script.

Still, Smith is perfect in the early scenes. Throughout his career, he’s always exuded a casual, carefree vibe. Like his character in Six Degrees Of Separation, he can talk his way out of any situation.

So he’s a slick guide through the minefield of modern dating, and his first few scenes with Mendes crackle with cleverness. He’s also got terrific rapport with James, who graduates from the small screen’s King Of Queens with Hitch’s most open, honest performance.

The film stalls in the final half-hour, but it gets back on track in the closing moments.

This date film is that rare thing: a chick flick that’s not just for chicks.


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