Considerably heavier on romance than comedy, “Hitch” stitches together relatively few laughs but generates enough goodwill and energy to keep much of the audience in its corner. Although the script can’t sustain the premise — and saddles the actors with some truly leaden dialogue — a buoyant second-banana turn by Kevin James and the few chuckle-worthy moments help compensate for the arid stretches. Given the notable dearth of quality fare in this genre, those attributes should strike Sony with Cupid’s arrow in the form of reasonably happy date-night returns.
Director Andy Tennant knows about romantic comedies longer on star appeal than smarts, what with “Fools Rush In” and “Sweet Home Alabama” on his resume. “Hitch” plods along on similar terrain, albeit with the additional boon of James’ Gleason-esque antics — a big, round, sweetly spirited lug who is awfully light on his toes.
In the process, “The King of Queens” star somewhat eclipses Will Smith as the smooth-talking “date doctor” — a near-urban legend, available by referral only, who coaches bumbling guys through the art of romance. The twist, of course, is that Alex “Hitch” Hitchens becomes all thumbs himself once faced with peeling away the hard shell of a comely gossip columnist, Sara (Eva Mendes), who turns his dating maxims upside down.
An opening sequence mixing Smith’s voiceover with him directly addressing the camera offers a taste of Hitch’s magic, but he takes on an especially challenging project when he tries to help a shy accountant, Albert (James), woo a beautiful jet-setting heiress, Allegra (Amber Valletta).
This isn’t to say Hitch lacks a moral code. Indeed, he only opens the door for nice guys lacking the moves to woo a woman, refusing to assist a Wall Street sleaze who has conquest, not romance, in mind. Like Sara, though, he’s resistant to love himself, still cautious from a courtship-inflicted wound years before.
It’s all rather wispy, and first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch struggles with the juggling act of keeping the central couple apart and then bringing them back together, aided by the almost-saving grace of having the Albert-Allegra storyline to fall back on.
Beyond his hangdog demeanor, James exhibits a flair for physical comedy, and the scenes of Smith prepping him for dates — if a little overexposed by the ad campaign — actually possess considerably more verve than either of the romantic pairings. In the best moment, Albert walks Allegra toward her door bracing for their much-rehearsed first kiss looking much like a guy being marched to a firing squad.
Smith branches out a little here, to the extent that this latest role is devoid of accompanying explosions, while Mendes charms the camera with an ease that exceeds her thinly drawn character. Nor is there much fleshed-out support, with what amount to cameos by Adam Arkin and Michael Rapaport as Sara’s tabloid editor and Hitch’s married pal, respectively.
As in many a romantic comedy, the juiciest supporting player is Manhattan, a backdrop that goes a long way toward setting the mood, along with George Fenton’s score. And while the film drags noticeably during its flabby closing act, the cast provides pleasant enough company to survive the Hallmark-card speeches that run through it.
All told, “Hitch” plays like the oldest of old-fashioned romantic comedies, which would be worth celebrating if only it was slightly better at it. Then again, just as love-seeking bar patrons tend to lower their standards as the clock approaches midnight, in these laugh-challenged times, it’ll do.