COURTSHIP FOR DUMMIES

Will Smith has spent the better part of his extremely successful career charming the pants off movie audiences. Until "Hitch," however, he's never gotten to charm the pants off a leading lady. This is his first flat-out romantic comedy, and it will surprise no one to learn that he's a natural. Playing Alex (Hitch) Hitchens, a New York "date doctor" who teaches hapless, moonstruck men how to romance the women of their dreams, he breezes through the role with his characteristic mix of playful braggadocio and sweet self-deprecation. Alex doesn't practice what he preaches--hurt once, he won't allow himself to fall in love again. Andy Tennant's flimsy but generally likeable comedy is tailor-made for Smith's cheerfully suave comic style, and the movie goes out of its way to avoid any hint of sleaziness. As a dating consultant, Hitch won't take on any clients who are just after a quick lay; only true lovers need apply. His altruistic approach to his profession doesn't exactly jibe with his personal philosophy of dating, a contradiction Kevin Bisch's feel-good screenplay exploits but fails to explore.

Naturally, Hitch does meet the woman of his dreams and, wouldn't you know, she's as commitment-phobic as he? Sara (Eva Mendes) is a beautiful but emotionally guarded gossip columnist who fends off one suitor after another until the masterly Hitch penetrates her defenses. The inevitable misunderstandings that keep them apart until the last reel are, even by Hollywood romantic-comedy standards, pretty contrived. Sara's outrage upon learning his true profession (which he conceals) seems odd, especially coming from a gossip peddler. More amusing than their predictably rocky romance is the populist subplot involving Hitch's most challenging client, a meek, klutzy accountant (Kevin James of TV's "The King of Queens") who has an impossible crush on celebrity heiress Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). Because James is such a dextrously disarming schlemiel, we happily suspends disbelief when his wildest dreams seem to come true.

"Hitch" could have used more edge. It's so eager to please that it's rarely as funny as the premise promises. With the exception of one arrogantly nasty Wall Street lothario, its view of courtship is willfully rosy--all the men are warm-hearted, lovelorn goobers who just need a little confidence to shine, and all the women are great-looking babes who melt at the first sign of sincerity. It's a fantasy that will fill box-office coffers, but it makes for a movie that's a little too innocuous for its own good.

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