dir. Tennant
Opens Fri Feb 11
Various Theaters

Since 1998, Kevin James has written and starred in King of Queens, TV's most underrated sitcom. Despite Queens' sharp writing and solid cast, its focus has always been showcasing James' exaggerated, everyman-inspired comedy. It was only a matter of time until James got tagged for a big role in a major film; unfortunately, that film is Hitch.

Hitch, of course, largely belongs to its relentlessly likable title character, Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, played by the relentlessly likable Will Smith. Hitch is custom-built for Smith's copyrighted onscreen persona--goofily handsome, witty, in control, and kind, Hitch is also New York's "date doctor," helping socially awkward men woo gorgeous women. When Hitch takes on Albert (James), an accountant who's crushing on supermodel/heiress Allegra (Amber Valletta), he discovers that Allegra is being reported upon by gossip columnist Sara (Eva Mendes). Predictably, Hitch falls for Sara, and even more predictably, whenever the wooing Hitch tries to practice what he preaches, he fucks up.

None of this really works, because even when he's fucking up, Smith is unceasingly charming--so of course you know that no matter how many faux pas he suffers, he's still golden. Refusing to be content with a crappy plot, screenwriter Kevin Bisch also tosses in a few truckloads' worth of romantic comedy clichés while making Sara and Allegra unlikable and petty.

The one thing that does work in Hitch is the team-up of James and Smith. They practice slapstick without being stupid, they banter without relying on predictable gags, and they're likable without pandering. Hitch, on the other hand, is stupid, predictable, and it shamelessly panders to the Valentine's Day couples the film's release date is designed to ensnare.

At its worst, Hitch is exactly what you'd think--a bland, derivative romantic comedy. At its too-rare best, however, the film's something quite different--a smart buddy comedy. Here's hoping Smith and James work together again; as long as it's not Hitch 2, I'll be there.