Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl.
That three-act structure may be sexist, but it’s been the basis for more successful movies, plays and novels than most of us would like to admit. Indeed, the formula has become so obvious that it requires considerable novelty to validate each reinvention.
“Hitch,” the new Will Smith comedy, is light on its feet through most of that first act. Getting to know the characters tops getting to know what happens to them. The plotty contrivances start to appear in the second act, and they’ve got a complete lock on Act Three.
By the time it’s over, you may not care if boy and girl ever see each other again, especially is they can’t stop paying homage to “Jerry Maguire.” (Yes, “You complete me” and “You had me at hello” are resurrected for the umpteenth time. Can we please declare a moratorium on their use?)
Smith has the charmingly ridiculous role of Alex “Hitch” Hitchens, a New York matchmaker or “date doctor” who demonstrates an almost supernatural ability to bring unlikely couples together. At the same time he’s helping a nerdy accountant, Albert (Kevin James), hook up with a famous heiress, Allegra (Amber Valletta), “Hitch” has added to his challenges by falling for a tough gossip columnist, Sara (Eva Mendes).
As long as these two couples manage to project a sense of mystery, first-time screenwriter Kevin Bisch generates a satisfying momentum. Hitch has an angelic quality, heightened by his ethical rejection of wealthy womanizers, that Smith quickly embraces. Standup comic James’ pratfall-prone Albert suggests the latest incarnation of Inspector Clouseau. His tricky, impromptu dance on a floor covered with marbles is the movie’s comic high point.
Mendes (Denzel Washington’s girlfriend in “Training Day”) is wickedly funny and rather scary as a career-driven reporter who is always surprising her boss (Adam Arkin) with her audacious scoops. She seems to be everywhere, and so, in a different way, is Allegra. Her celebrity makes her an easy mark for pretentious golddiggers, and Valletta makes her isolation and vulnerability quite poignant. It’s easy to believe that she’d fall for Albert’s aggressively protective qualities.
The director, Andy Tennant, who guided Drew Barrymore through the 1988 Cinderella movie, “Ever After,” knows something about romantic comedy. He handles all four of the leading actors with a genuine appreciation of what they can contribute. This could be a breakthrough for James, who demonstrates a deadpan talent for slapstick, and it’s likely to be a career plus for Mendes and Valletta.
Still, Tennant is only as strong as the scripts he’s given, as the formulaic “Sweet Home Alabama” demonstrated, and he can’t keep “Hitch” from slowing down and sliding into neutral. Almost as if he’s aware of how close he is to flatlining, he makes an attempt to jump-start the finale with a high-energy dancing episode that plays like an enforced curtain call. Alas, it’s too little, too desperate.