Swingers did it; so did Kissing Jessica Stein and Sideways. There’s a reason, though, that big-budget romantic comedies almost never succeed at nailing the ins and outs of the contemporary dating world. Dating is all about behavior: the fine-tuned verbal and chemical idiosyncrasies that make one person mesh (or not) with another. Most Hollywood love stories are too broad and schematic for that. They’re not about personalities. They’re about situations.
Take, for instance, Hitch, a movie that pretends to be a wry observational comedy of dating etiquette and mystique. Alex Hitchens (Will Smith) is the legendary, professionally anonymous ”Date Doctor” of New York City. His nickname is Hitch, which derives, I’d wager, from the fact that he hitches people up. For a fee, he’ll consult with any man in love with any woman who, for one reason or another, hasn’t given said man the time of day. Hitch comes to the rescue with four-star advice about how to talk, walk, dress, and be. (He should call his business Straight Eye for the Straight Guy.) His theory is that today’s women have their guards up so far that a lot of them can’t embrace, or even see, the nice dude in front of them. The reality, from what we’re shown, is that Hitch is a wizard at hooking up frogs with princesses.
His latest frog is Albert (Kevin James), a meekly earnest and tubby nerd of an accountant who has had the misfortune of falling for one of Manhattan’s hottest boldface names: a celebrity rich girl with righteous cheekbones named Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). You’d assume that this gorgeous specimen of glitterati would be miles out of a guy like Albert’s league. But not, it seems, with the right coaching! Kevin James, who’s a veteran of sitcoms (The King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond), has a gift for casual slapstick masochism. He knows just how to stumble, how to spill things on himself, how to dance like the world’s most grotesque parody of a ”soulful” lip-biting white man. He’s all too convincing as the sort of awkward schmo who would make a champagne socialite like Allegra want to run for the exits. Yet Albert is able to win her over simply by following a few of Hitch’s tips and techniques, such as straightening his posture and acting really, really nice to one of her friends. Meanwhile, guys in the audience may think, If only it were that easy. As Albert heads out for the evening, Hitch tells him to imagine himself as an iceberg, with 90 percent of his manly essence submerged beneath the trivial surface of his accountant self. Sounds good, except that a character as superficially conceived as Albert doesn’t have a submerged essence. The geek you see is the geek you get.
As Hitch doles out his foolproof bachelor wisdom, he is also acting on it himself, putting the moves on Sara (Eva Mendes), a tabloid gossip columnist who treats romance as a virus against which she’d like to be vaccinated. A dating comedy, like so many actual dates, should be a messy hormonal swirl of ardor and miscommunication. When the two first meet at a bar, Smith and Mendes get a good, fast-talking hostile joust going. But Hitch wins over his object of affection a little too quickly. In Hitch, there’s no room for middle ground: The movie splits everything it shows us into a caricature of pathetic loserdom or successful suavity.
Will Smith, taking a break from summer sci-fi smashfests, certainly shows a gift for modulation. Far from coasting, he plays a world expert at romance by ratcheting his charm up and down in supple, exacting degrees. Yet it’s part of the Smith package that Hitch remains all but flawless (either that, or he’s got cute throwaway flaws, like losing his shirt after catching it in a taxicab door).
Smith and Mendes maintain such a relaxed connection that all there is to keep them apart is her inevitable, horrified discovery that he’s the Date Doctor. This mechanical development forces the movie to plod well past the diversion zone. Sara figures that Hitch’s smooth moves must have all been…moves. Mere ploys of seduction. What she doesn’t quite understand is that he’s a tutor in chivalry; he has never taken on a client who is simply trying to get laid. (The one minor character who falls into that category is a loathsome Wall Street jackal.) No one could fairly accuse Hitch, or Hitch, of randiness, coarse insensitivity, and other feministically incorrect sins, but that’s really the movie’s whole problem: It makes nerds and studs alike so noble that it turns the chase into a neutered game.