Dir: Andy Tennant. US2005. 115mins

While it may not be on apar with benchmark romantic comedies like Pretty Woman, Andy Tennant's Hitchproves that even the unlikeliest love story works if backed up by a solid freshscript and believable, ingratiating characters.

Columbia can expect a solidreturn on its this perfect date flick, both theatrically (it opens in the UStoday) and in ancillary markets, moreso given the relatively warm welcomeafforded to the far more superficial and charmless romantic comedy TheWedding Date last weekend.

Although comedies don'talways translate well overseas, Smith's drawing power, as well as the generalsweetness and generous laughs of the story, should work to the picture'sadvantage.

Alex 'Hitch'Hitchens (Smith) is a sophisticated but down-to-earth New Yorker who has carvedout a niche as a 'date' doctor. Charismatic but not egotistical, coolbut not threatening, he counsels shy, socially inept men on how to woo thewomen of their dreams.

Yet while his track recordas a consultant is unblemished, Hitch seems to have ruled out romance forhimself, the legacy of a long ago but still painful broken heart.

Things change when he meetsSara (Mendes), a smart, sassy tabloid gossip columnist who observes otherpeople's romances but won't open herself up to a relationship. Just as the twoof them start letting their defences down, she discovers that he is theinfamous date doctor she has been trying to publicly expose.

While not perfect, Hitchbuilds up enough good will as it goes along that it can ride out the weakermoments. The sincerity and vulnerability with which Bisch endows his charactersgoes a long way towards explaining the story's success with credit also due todirector Andy Tennant, who has had notable success before with romanticcomedies Sweet Home Alabama and Ever After.

The story takes a littlewhile to kick into gear and much of the physical comedy is overly broad, butfirst-time screenwriter Bisch delivers believable characters with real emotionswho the actors can run with.

Smith's easy, low-key charmalways seems so effortless. Whether that makes him a great actor or just meanshe plays himself a lot is unclear but it undoubtedly helps that he doesn't mindmaking fun of himself as he does here on several occasions.

Even better is TV actorKevin James in his feature debut, who lends the film its Cinderfella element.As adorable dorky accountant Albert, he hires Hitch to help him win gorgeoussocialite Allegra (Valletta), whose sophisticated exterior masks an insecureinterior.

The scenes between Smith andco-star James shine the brightest as the two play off of each other strongly,displaying the kind of chemistry it's hard to fake.
James and Valletta also work well together, with the latter offering apromising performance that suggests Cameron Diaz's flair for comedy. Thataudiences will buy into her unlikely fairytale romance with Albert is a suresign that the film is doing something right.

The weakest link in the castis Mendes, who does not seem nearly as relaxed nor as believable as herco-stars.

Prod co: Overbrook Entertainment Prods
US dist:
Columbia Pictures
Intl dist:
Sony PicturesReleasing International
James Lassiter, Will Smithand Teddy Zee
Exec prods:
Michael Tadross andWink Mordaunt
Kevin Bisch
Andrew Dunn
Pro des:
Jane Musky
Troy Takaki, TraceyWadmore-Smith
George Fenton
Main cast:
Will Smith, EvaMendes, Kevin James, Amber Valletta