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Looking Back at 'Hitch,' Will Smith's Hip-Shaking, World-Conquering Lovefest

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Looking Back at 'Hitch,' Will Smith's Hip-Shaking, World-Conquering Lovefest

It’s been a while since we saw Will Smith having fun.

In recent years, the former Fresh Prince has spent most of his time glowering his way through po-faced sci-fi actioners (I Am Legend, After Earth) and somber dramas (The Pursuit Of Happyness, Seven Pounds). Even films that seemingly would have capitalized on his charisma have been downbeat: Smith’s big superhero movie, Hancock, saw him frowny-faced and cranky, and the sci-fi sequel Men In Black 3 — the follow-up to one of his most beloved hits — barely even qualified as a comedy, kiboshing gags in favor of pathos and tricky time-travel thrills.

But with this weekend’s rom-com caper Focus, the 46-year-old blockbuster vet returns to the kind of loose, cocksure performances that initially defined his big-screen career. It’s a reminder of just how long it’s been since Smith’s taken full advantage of his natural charms, which we haven’t seen on display since Hitch, the surprisingly enduring comedy that celebrates its 10th anniversary this month — and a film that easily ranks among the finest of Smith’s career.

Directed by Andy Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama), Hitch cast Smith as Alex ‘Hitch’ Hitchens, a so-called ‘date doctor’ who faces his biggest professional challenge — helping schlubby, self-conscious accountant Albert (Kevin James) woo his millionaire client Allegra (Amber Valletta) — while simultaneously falling for a journalist (Eva Mendes) who doesn’t know how about his love-matching ways.

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Opening in February 2005, the film received decent, if not ecstatic reviews ( USA Today gave it the backhanded compliment of “Hollywood’s most acceptable date movie in a while”). Yet it was an instant hit, eventually taking nearly $370 million worldwide — enough to make it one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time.

Though the big mainstream rom-com is now dead (or at least dormant), Hitch was released at a time when studios were still desperately trying to find the next great date-night film, with mostly failed results. But unlike other films from the same year — Just Like Heaven, Must Love Dogs, The Wedding Date, Elizabethtown — that have long faded from memory, Hitch has remained in the pop-culture conversation: Fox have been developing a TV translation of the film; this year’s Kevin Hart vehicle The Wedding Ringer was virtually a remake; and Hitch even received a Bollywood version, in the form of 2007’s Partner. So why has Hitch succeeded (and survived) when so many similar films failed?

The short answer: Endless cable TV screenings. Hitch is family-friendly and translates easily to the small screen, and as a result, is a perfect for basic-cable (it’s appeared on TBS so many times that comedian Aziz Ansari —an avowed, seemingly unironic fan of the movie —live-tweeted Hitch during a 2012 broadcast). But the film’s appeal goes deeper than that.

For starters, there’s Smith himself. Years away from rumors of alleged links to Scientology, and not yet settled into his more recent stage-dad persona, he’s at the height of his movie-star appeal here, funny and effortlessly charming. At his best, Smith was always willing to look goofy as well as suave, and the film takes full advantage of that. The flashbacks to his nerdier days — and the way the ladies man loses his game and becomes tongue-tied around Mendes — makes him approachable, even vulnerable. 

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He’s also got great chemistry with co-star James: The King Of Queens actor clearly relishes the chance at a big-screen showcase, and he’s hapless, guileless and enormously appealing here. The pair’s shared scenes are easily the movie’s highlights.

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The Smith-James pairing hints at another reason for the film’s endurance. Other rom-coms of the period were aimed and targeted mostly at women, but Hitch hews closer to a less bawdy version of other big hits from that year, such as Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Like those films, Hitch is full of big comic set-pieces, and written with a decidedly male-skewed vision of romance. At the same time, Hitch never goes full bro: Though Hitch’s profession anticipates the pick-up-artist trend that followed the publication of Neil Strauss’ The Game, his emphasis on love, rather than sex, prevents the film from becoming too skeezy and alienating.

Indeed, Hitch is a remarkably inclusive film, with a decidedly multi-cultural view of the romantic comedy. Sure, the film’s locations and the character’s professions could have come from any NYC rom-com since When Harry Met Sally, but it places a love story between an African-American man and a Hispanic-American woman in that fairy-tale world — a borderline groundbreaking move, especially at a time when Dermot Mulroney was still getting to play romantic leads. There’s a real commitment to diversity in the movie: Many of the minor characters are played by people of color, and the city’s melting-pot nature is even depicted in an extended scene on Ellis Island (though the film defuses any sentimentality with the film’s most inspired gag, as it turns out that Mendes’ immigrant great-grandfather was a serial killer)

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Hitch is far from a perfect movie. It’s lacking in chemistry between its romantic pairings (Amber Valletta in particular is something of a blank space, never allowed to do anything beyond being rich and beautiful); it’s tonally uneven, vacillating between relative realism and broad gags; it’s conservative, almost prudish about sex; and the plotting is rote, lackadaisical and sometimes conflict-free. It’s only during the third act — in which Hitch’s identity as a love guru is revealed — that there are any real obstacles to overcome in the path of true love.

Nevertheless, the film works, and in large part that’s because of Smith (who produced the movie as well as starred in it): His broad multi-cultural appeal, his deft comic skill, and his willingness to look vulnerable, carries Hitch despite its flaws, and it’s a shame we haven’t seen more of that iteration of the star recently. Let’s hope Focus provides us all with another reminder of what we’ve been missing.

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Published by , 28.02.2015 at 01:08
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Zoltan Brenner
Zoltan Brenner 28 February 15 22:33 Terrible movie for men. Men will fail in life if they focus on one woman. Text hided expand
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Richard Stone
Richard Stone 1 March 15 17:47 One of my favorite movies. Seen it so many times and never get bored. Text hided expand
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