‘Hitch’ has the Smith touch, wavers between funny and boring

“Hitch,” a shiny new romantic comedy, is first and foremost a vehicle for box-office dynamo Will Smith. As vehicles go, this one’s a Cadillac. The title character, Hitch, is a date doctor who operates in New York City. He finds nice but dorky guys and helps them become cool and win the women of their dreams. Hitch is stylish, suave, clever and good-hearted. This is definitely Will Smith territory. Unfortunately, this Cadillac has a clunky engine and takes a little too long to get where it’s going.

The story of “Hitch” is fairly simple, although there are some interesting moments in which traditional gender roles are reversed. Hitch finds himself falling for gossip columnist Sarah Melas (Eva Mendes). He starts having hilarious trouble with the suave part, and then misunderstanding and mistrust rear their ugly heads. There’s also a subplot about Hitch helping the dorky Albert Brennaman (Kevin James) woo a beautiful and sophisticated celebrity.

“Hitch” comes very close to working. Its greatest strength is its performances. Will Smith is reliably funny. He doesn’t really play characters; just variations on his own personality. He is good at it, though, and always turns in an interesting and believable performance. He is no different in “Hitch” and stirs up some impressive vulnerability in flashbacks to a younger Hitch. The standout here is Kevin James. Due in part to his performance, Albert Brennaman’s subplot is often more interesting than the main plot. Smith and James have excellent comic chemistry, and the scenes in which they play off each other are often hilarious.

The screenplay itself was competently written, but too slick to be believable. Hitch was a little too good with words, and the elaborate surprises he sets up for his beloved are a little too perfect. There’s never really any tension at all, because we never doubt that the super-competent Hitch will have any problem clearing everything up. There is also an irritating overuse of metaphor in the movie. Any time a character has something on his mind he discusses it by using a metaphor based on whatever he happens to be doing at the time. This is present from the get go, when the characters of Hitch and Sarah are introduced through metaphorical conversations about their love lives.

The movie is at its best in its early scenes, when we get to see Hitch in action. The risk of having a gimmicky main character like a date doctor is that his day-to-day life is often more interesting than the things that happen to him in the movie. It’s a lot of fun watching Hitch spout out rules for dating and humorously teaching guys to be successful with women. It’s less fun watching Hitch deal with his personal issues while falling in love. The former is something new and fun. The latter is something that happens in every romantic comedy. If the writing had been better perhaps the second half would have been as fun as the first half.

“Hitch” moved in fits and starts. It oscillated between entertaining and boring, and by the end was heavier on the boring side. There are some genuinely funny moments. If you think you might like this movie then you probably will, but don’t go out of your way to see it.