One should expect little from the man who has directed an Olsen Twins movie (It Takes Two, the one with Steve Guttenberg, no less), Matthew Perry’s first Friends-to-film entry (Fools Rush In, its title an apparent nod to audiences who went to see it), and Sweet Home Alabama, one of those interchangeable romantic comedies located at the bottom of Reese Witherspoon’s barrel. Andy Tennant is one of those directors whose name audiences will never know or, at the very least, remember; to this moment, I confuse him with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant for no substantial reason apart from their shared last name. He works even when his movies don’t — which is most of the time, because he stays out of his stars’ way, offering nothing in the way of visual style, verbal wit, or, apparently, direction of any kind. Flair and spark are not among his tools. All he seemingly possesses are the abilities to say yes to a project and to cash a studio’s paycheck, which makes him invaluable as an assembly-line attendant in a factory town.
His latest job entailed sitting on the set of Hitch while Will Smith acted like Will Smith, or at least what we imagine he acts like when cameras aren’t tagging along. To call his a “performance” would be stretching the definition; Smith could have been sitting on a couch next to Jay Leno or ordering a deli platter, for all it matters. As Alex Hitchens, a so-called “date doctor” who teaches schlumpy young men how to woo and wow women out of their league, Smith is the stale prince of charming grins and adorable asides. It’s astounding that this is his first real romantic comedy, because it feels as if he’s been doing this shtick for years. It doesn’t help that nearly every single line of dialogue he’s forced to deliver sounds like the inside of a Hallmark card written by someone just fired from the fortune cookie factory. “Life is not about the breaths you take, but about the moments that take your breath away,” he says early on, taking credit for an old cliché. Later, when schlepping new would-be gal-pal Eva Mendes out to Ellis Island for a first date, he reminds her, “You can’t know where you’re going till you know where you’ve been.” This bolsters the long-held theory that most screenplays are now written via Google searches for hackneyed aphorisms cobbled together with a semblance of coherence; this particular search was conducted by Kevin Bisch.
Ostensibly, Hitch is meant to be a cynic who believes in romance only for other people — in this case, nebbishy accountant Albert, played by inexplicable TV star Kevin James (King of Queens), who is starting to resemble a swelled-up Jeremy Piven. Albert has the soul-searing hots for millionheiress Allegra Cole (Cameron Diaz look-alike Amber Valletta), for no other reason than she’s stunning and, quite possibly, an allergy medicine. Albert hires Hitch to provide pointers on how to score some Allegra, which leads to an admittedly amusing dance sequence (“Don’t ever bite your lower lip,” Hitch orders Albert) and little else, since the Albert-Allegra romance is pushed to the sidelines for such long stretches, you’d be forgiven for forgetting they’re even in the movie.
What Hitch is more interested in, without actually showing much interest, is the burgeoning love affair between Hitch and Mendes’ character, Sara, a gossip reporter for a New York City tabloid. They’re both supposed to be characters damaged by traumas experienced long ago: Hitch by a college love affair that ended badly (seen briefly in flashback, with Smith dolled up like Steve Urkel), Sara by a younger sister’s brush with death when they were children. Precisely how these moments left these two beautiful people so ugly on the inside is left to the imagination; would that the makers of the movie had half of one. Needless to say, they flirt, go on a couple of dates, and fall in love, only to experience one of those unfortunate misunderstandings people in movies have when they fail to ask a single question whose answer could explain everything.
Buried somewhere in here, about six feet deep, is an intriguing premise: Hitch fixes up other people because he’s, well, broken — a hopeless romantic who claims he doesn’t believe in romance. Late in the movie, when his world is torn asunder by Sara’s vengeful front-page piece outing him as a maker of one-night stands and breaker of hearts, Smith flashes a touch of the talent that made him so remarkable in Six Degrees of Separation and Ali. He lashes out at Albert, who believes in a thing called love, by claiming it doesn’t really exist, that its fleeting pleasures lead only to lasting pain. But Hitch and Hitch don’t believe that, obviously; perpetrators of fluffy fictions have no interest in harsher truths, especially when the audience has come to see people have “their last first kiss,” as Hitch likes to say when selling his services. You don’t sell tickets to a date movie by telling the audience they’re kidding themselves, even when the makers of the movie clearly are.