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Every now and then it's good to let go and just believe in romance. Guys, it's even better to do it around Valentine's Day. Luckily this year we have Hitch, a light romantic comedy that still has a bit of edge with Will Smith and perhaps the beginnings of a great comedy team with Smith and Kevin James.

To give in to this movie, you do have to get over a few things. Misunderstandings arise only because the story needs misunderstandings to make it work. Motivations are slight. Smith has to play that being utterly burned at love, and thus refusing to play at it himself, has turned him into an expert, the so-called "Date Doctor." Countering Hitch comes gossip columnist Sara (Eva Mendes), also refusing to enter the dating pool because of a childhood trauma that really should have no bearing on the issue. Hitch needs to meet his match, so any excuse to make that Sara will do.

Only Albert (James) seems to be following a natural course. A big-time junior accountant with blue collar habits, Albert has fallen in love from a distance with New York City's most popular heiress. Anyone can identify with that.

No, it's not Paris Hilton, but the heiress, Allegra Cole, is played by a former supermodel, Amber Valleta. If you can buy that after dating a succession of jetsetting playboys, Allegra would fall into a shy (and chaste) courtship with a guy that can't eat a single meal without staining his shirt, then you are ready for Hitch. It's not quite screwball comedy, but it comes close at times. Director Andy Tennant keeps things light and breezy, and unlike a lot of "comedy" directors churning out product, he actually knows how to stage a gag. Even when a bit pushes the boundaries of logic, Tennant pulls it off and moves on. He cut his teeth on some of the most visually inventive sitcoms of the early nineties, and if I have any disappointment with his film work, it's that he never lets himself go into full-scale lunacy. But maybe that's a good thing.

Part of what makes Hitch work is the clever screenplay by Kevin Bisch. Again, it's occasionally short on logic, but the dialogue always pops until the few moments it gets dragged down into exposition. (Adam Arkin, as Sara's editor, has the unfortunate duty of delivering moral messages without getting anything actually fun to do.)

The four main actors, however, should get praise. Can this really be the first time the ultra-charismatic Smith has played straight up romantic comedy? It feels like a genre he was born to do. Or, if necessary, at least keep teaming him with James. Every scene between the two hits the mark, and if they don't work together again, it will be a shame. They have far more natural give and take then Smith has had in his teamings with more intense actors like Tommy Lee Jones.

As the objects of affection, Mendes and Valletta strike different but charming notes. Mendes has been stuck in crap project after crap project, but hinted that she could be funny in Stuck On You. With Hitch, she has the makings of a real movie star, at turns knowing and vulnerable. When sparring with Smith, she more than holds her own while also making it completely believable when she realizes she's fallen for him. In a slightly more unbelievable role, Valletta, too, makes you believe in love. Relegated to a lot of shots of quietly appraising James, she shows the melting of Allegra while never letting go of the character's strength.

The film does waste a few character actors. For some reason, Michael Rapaport gets high billing to appear in an early scene, be established as pivotal to Hitch's life, and then never be seen again. Screenwriter Bisch goes to even more trouble to establish a supporting cast for Sara, including wacky officemates and soulful best friend, but they disappear for huge stretches, until such as they might serve for a fine coincidence.

Overall, though, those things end up being minor quibbles. By the time the final credits roll, Hitch has delivered a surprisingly good time. Yes, it's light, it's frothy (yeah, it's a gross word for guys, but it's true) and fun. It also has just the right amount of goofiness to keep both genders entertained this Valentine weekend.

So go. We won't tell.


Derek McCaw

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