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The Dating Game

Romantic comedy takes a back seat to romantic fantasy in "Hitch."


By night, he glides through the New York social scene like a suave and sophisticated Tarzan. King of the urban jungle, he can scoop a female from a circle of five other alpha males, and he makes short work of his designated equal — hardened gossip columnist and jaded romantic Sara (Eva Mendes). A series of unfortunate confusions stunts their blossoming romance, but what follows is less a battle of the sexes than a battle of the sexless: The two circle each other like wary business partners, parrying drippy relationship-speak like boardroom negotiations. Courtship, according to "Hitch," is merely a means to secure that most tenuous of social contracts: a promise not to hit it and quit it.

Hitch may be a player by trade, but we're supposed to believe that Sara's charms (their nature we'll get to later) have turned him into a pussycat. Smith is the perfect actor to convey this preposterous combination of guile and innocence. His character must be a guy who has honed special powers over women but would never use them for evil. Smith's looks — a lofty, buff torso topped by an almost animatronic head — do half the work, making Hitch manly but also cuddly. Smith's well-paid onscreen charisma adds the rest, a bright comic quality of easygoing goofiness that provides the funniest jokes.

No matter how serious a star he becomes, Smith is always best midpratfall, and he may be the closest thing contemporary cinema has to a Cary Grant. It's a shame that director Andy Tennant, working from a script by Kevin Bisch, felt the need to burden him with sappy dialogue. These romantic fits are so numerous and clumsy, it's not long before you start bracing yourself for their arrival: closeup on Smith's serious face, as if he's about to whisper in your ear. All other sound is sucked from the auditorium. Cue dopey aphorism: "Life is not the amount of breaths you take, it's the moments that take your breath away." There are moments when you think you've stumbled upon the longest De Beers commercial ever.

Hitch, however, is a veritable Cyrano compared to Sara. The multiethnic Mendes must have dazzled the casting committee with her J. Lo-esque potential to seduce the entire demographic. She's a physically attractive, headstrong professional, but a cliché as a career busybody. (Can we assume journalist was a tossup with doctor?) We're meant to see her as the skeptical, chaste girl in a crowd of gullibles and sluts, but mostly what we see are generous shots of her plentiful bosom. To her mind, love is better calculated than spontaneous. A worthy man must exhaust himself through a series of tests to win her heart. What he wins is a crabby, distrustful drama queen. It's a wonder Hitch cares, but then another pan of cleavage tells our thoughts to move along.

A PG-13 rating thankfully spares us any turgid love scenes, but the movie's as devoid of real emotion as sex. It may be more appropriate to refer to the filmmakers behind this project as a marketing team, so seamlessly do the various components of the merchandise come together. Taking in the easy-listening soundtrack, the product placements and the pandering to generic attitudes, it is not hard to imagine high-fives passed between smartly dressed "movie doctors" congratulating each other at a wrap party. Released in conjunction with Valentine's Day, the movie is a fitting accompaniment to a box of assorted chocolates. You like a few bits here and there, but the whole has no appeal. ** S

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