There's a big, ugly "Hitch" in the modern romantic comedy game. Films such as "Little Black Book," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" and last week's "The Wedding Date" would have us believe people do the least believable things en route to romance. The formula reaches a new low in "Hitch," an engineered calamity that wastes "The King of Queens' " Kevin James in his first meaty film role.
The "Hitch" in question is Alex "Hitch" Hitchens (Will Smith), a professional dating consultant who trains guys to woo their dream girls.
He has his hands full with Albert (Mr. James), a lumpy accountant who's fallen hard for Allegra (Amber Valetta). She's a beautiful and wealthy gossip page darling who, in the real world, wouldn't so much as acknowledge her schlubby suitor.
The Date Doctor is in, however, and before you know it Albert has made a connection with Allegra.
Hitch himself lacks the romantic courage he stokes in his clients. He got badly burned by love years ago -- a comically inept flashback featuring Mr. Smith in full Urkel regalia -- and now keeps the ladies at arm's length.
It's not a bad strategy considering the film pairs him up with the ambitious, self-satisfied gossip columnist Sara (Eva Mendes). We'd sooner see Hitch curl up with a good book than waste his skills on her, but waste them he does in a series of exaggerated dates that would scream "stalker" to any rational female.
Rationality means nothing to "Hitch" and its ilk, so we trudge on, gritting our teeth as Mr. Smith's boundless appeal gets ground down to a nub.
The romantic comedy fog lifts whenever Mr. Smith and Mr. James share the screen. Theirs is the chemistry "Hitch" meant for Mr. Smith and Miss Mendes, and the irony is that it's Miss Mendes who strikes a stale sitcom note, not the current "King of Queens."
First-time screenwriter Kevin Birsch begins "Hitch" on a comic high but doesn't know how to let his characters fall in love. Like a schoolboy with a mad crush, he thinks shoving his characters translates into affection. Mr. Birsch's limp comic set pieces, like Hitch suffering a food allergy attack or Sara getting clonked in the head mid-date, never make the case for their attraction.
Other stretches for comedy's sake stagger and fall -- does Sara's great- grandfather really have to be a mass murderer? -- but we're rescued whenever Hitch and Albert plot their next moves.
Mr. Smith's charisma, and he has tons of it in reserve, abandons him by the protracted finale.
It's all a shame because lurking within this shell of a comedy lies a neat premise -- that a professional dating expert doesn't really know what makes a woman's heart tick after all.
Instead, we get Mr. Smith wallowing in material beneath him and Mr. James showing he deserves a second chance at big screen comedy.
RATING: PG-13 (Some salty language and sexual references)
CREDITS: Directed by Andy Tennant. Written by Kevin Bisch. Produced by James Lassiter, Will Smith and Teddy Zee.
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes
WEB SITE: www.sonypictures
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS