(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
115 min. Columbia Pictures. Directors: Andrew Tennant, Andy Tennant. Cast: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James, Amber Valletta, Julie Ann Emery.

The Hitch pitch probably went something like this: Alfie meets Cyrano de Bergerac. Hitch is an urban fantasy, with florid observations about life and love ("Life is not the amount of breaths you take—it's the moments that take your breath away") leavened by the good humor of semi-disasterous dates.

Will Smith plays the title character, Alex Hitchens, who opens the film by directly addressing the audience. He's New York City's "Date Doctor," and if you've got "no guile and no game," he's your man. Hitch coaches fumbling men to score with women. Kevin James of TV's The King of Queens plays Albert, an accountant who's a no-count in love until Hitch baby-steps him into a relationship with a stunning socialite (Amber Valletta). Lessons in getting a woman's attention, dancing, and planting the first kiss provide Smith and James plenty of comic opportunity.

Meanwhile, Hitch meets his match in reporter Sara Melas, played by Eva Mendes (Out of Time); their professional obligations intrude on their pursuit of a relationship. Hitch fails their first date ("but...with flair"), arranges a sweet-and-sour trip to Ellis Island, and eventually loses all control when Sara erupts in a food-fight frenzy. Naturally, Albert hits the rocks as well, and both men set out to get their respective grooves back, the honest way.

Hitch turns out to be winning for a number of reasons. First, writer Kevin Bisch and director Andy Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama) acknowledge that Hitch is full of it: he can help others, but when he's in love himself, he gets in over his head; this revelation is hardly surprising, but it's key to grounding the unsettling notion that frumpy white guys need "cool" lessons from lithe black men.

Secondly, Tennant ruthlessly keeps the plot bouncing along (though poor Michael Rapaport, as Hitch's best friend, gets jettisoned quickly). Most importantly, Hitch is well-cast, with a sprightly Smith in his finest fettle in years. The star player seems in his element, loosely ranging from smooth-move deadpan to "how did I get in this mess?" mania. Sometimes, competent direction and a brace of star power are enough for Hollywood's best-laid plans to go off without a hitch...or with one, as the case may be.

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