Martin Stein

It's only February, so it's too early to call Hitch the best date movie of the year but it's hard to imagine a better offering.

Will Smith is Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, a legendary but secretive consultant for love-struck men who get tongue-tied around their objects of desire. He's a romantic who talks in some odd mixture of Hallmarkese and Tony Robbins-speak, hired by word-of-mouth to smooth and polish the geeks of the world, including accountant Albert Brennaman (Kevin James of The King of Queens) who has his heart set on heiress and socialite Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). Everything is going well until smoking-hot gossip columnist Sara Melas (Eva Mendes) comes along.

Hitch falls for the jaded Melas while, at the same time, Melas is trying to discover the identity of Manhattan's date doctor. The rest of the plot is pretty much by the numbers and easy to predict. The charm here is in the cast and script.

Smith and James are a delight to watch separately and an even greater joy when they share the screen. After failing as the hard-boiled cop in I, Robot, Smith is back on familiar turf, with impeccable timing and a role that fits him like his character's comfortably stylish clothes. It's to James' credit that he keeps pace, investing his lovable schnook with an unexpected pathos in a part that could have easily been seen as nothing more than gold-digging. Together, the pair are a comedy-duo classic, playing off each other with an ease that never strains believability.

The ladies don't fare quite as well. While it's unlikely that any other woman since Rita Hayworth can raise her head and take your breath away like Mendes does, she can't break out of the cynical Sara to Hitch's heartthrob. Valletta is somewhat better, channeling Cameron Diaz for most of the film. Vastly underutilized by director Andy Tennant (Sweet Home Alabama) is Julie Ann Emery as Casey, Sara's emotionally vulnerable best friend, who can go from anger to astonishment with a quivering bite of the lip.

It's slightly disheartening that such a gem of a film is being released in the cinematic doldrums of February, but then again, Valentine's Day is just around the corner.

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