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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ten Years Later... Hitch (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: Andy Tennant
Starring: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James

Generally speaking, there are few types of men more repellent than pick up artists - on the spectrum they're above Men's Rights Activists, but well below men who, you know, treat women like human beings rather than civilizations to be conquered - so making a movie about one (and a romantic comedy, no less) should have been a dicey prospect. As it turns out, however, when you cast someone as easily likable as Will Smith in the lead, you end up sidestepping a lot of the less savory aspects of pick up artist culture and the resulting film is, if not feminist exactly, then at least not the steaming pile of misogyny that it easily could have been. Sure, there's at least one joke that rests on the inherent "hilarity" of gay panic, but when it comes down to it I'm not sure that Hitch could more firmly have its heart in the right place. Color me shocked.

The Story

Once an awkward young man whose guileless nature lead to heartbreak when he was in college, Alex Hitchens has devoted his life since then to cracking the "code" of what women want in a man and turned it into a business, operating as a secret "date doctor" who coaches hapless men in the art of romance, though he eschews having serious relationships himself. When he meets a gossip columnist who is as commitment-averse as himself, he believes that he's finally met his match, but her interest in exposing the seemingly mythical New York date doctor may spell the relationship's doom.

The View from 2005

The Good: "The real mystery in Hitch is how a comedy so formulaic can be so seductive. The answer has a lot to do with intangible qualities like chemistry and charisma, as well as the gullible heart's strange power to override the strenuous objections of the skeptical mind." - Nathan Rabin, The AV Club

The Bad: "No one could fairly accuse Hitch, or Hitch, of randiness, coarse insensitivity, and other feministically incorrect sins, but that’s really the movie’s whole problem: It makes nerds and studs alike so noble that it turns the chase into a neutered game." - Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

The View from 2015

Before moving on to the actual content of the film, there's one thing that I really need to get out of the way because I could barely get my mind past it while watching the film: holy hell is thing ever dated. One of the main characters works at a newspaper and there's no suggestion that it's a dying industry! And people get their celebrity gossip from a column that appears in print rather than online! And the gossip columnist can accidentally get a scoop, complete with pictures, while on vacation and wait until she gets back to New York to publish those pictures! I realize that perpetually advancing technology means that life moves just a little bit faster from one day to the next (and obviously I realize that movies represent "real life" in a way that it often idealized rather than realistic), but it's nevertheless weird in 2015 to watch a movie that keeps a straight face while suggesting that consumers are clamoring for newspapers at the nearest newsstand in order to get their celebrity gossip fix.

Anyway, moving on. I did not see Hitch back in 2005 but I'd seen bits and pieces of it in television broadcasts since then and I must admit that that gave me sort of the wrong idea about what kind of movie (message wise) Hitch was. One of the parts I'd seen, for example, was the opening sequence where Hitch lays out what he does and we watch him hooking up various normal looking dudes of the kind that you'll find walking down the street with the sort of impossibly perfect looking women who exist only in fiction. Seeing that sequence again, I was fully prepared to end up hating the movie because it reinforces two really gross but culturally prevalent ideas: one, that "nice guys" are entitled to whatever woman they want; and two, that women need to (or can) be "tricked" into an attraction to a man. To be sure, there is an element of this problematic notion in the film, where most of the men are sort of schlubby with the exception of the story's one designated asshole and Hitch himself, who is the one "good" guy who is also aesthetically pleasing in a traditional sense, while the women are uniformly thin, beautiful, and seemingly incapable of seeing beyond the surface to the good man underneath without a bit of a nudge. The "seeing beyond the surface" thing never goes both ways, one might notice, and as a culture we seem to have accepted that men can demand to be seen in terms beyond the superficial even as they go all in in their pursuit of the superficial in a mate, yet even though this strand of sexism is part of Hitch's DNA, the film still manages to be fairly charming.

This success comes down to Smith in a lot of ways, who produced the film in addition to starring in it and ensures that Hitch emerges not as a man who helps guys "score," but as a man trying to help separate the men genuinely seeking love from the men whose goal is sex and nothing else. As Hitch himself states, he's in the business of helping men who actually like women. The characterization of Hitch is further aided by the fact that once he gets involved with Eva Mendes' Sara, he ends up having to toss his "rule book" because he realizes that you can't actually chart out your every move in advance because, just like men, every woman is different and every relationship is going to be different and won't follow an exactly plotted course. Though it is formulaic that the character whose job it is to transform romantic flops into romantic studs turns out to be such a disaster in his own personal life, Smith is so good at both selling the notion that he's an expert and at expressing Hitch's growing frustration that nothing he tries with Sara turns out as planned (and usually ends with him being horrifically embarrassed) that it works. Smith also plays terrifically with Mendes, who meets him note for note and almost makes you forget how little her character is actually developed.

Hitch isn't a great movie by any stretch; its third act conflict to resolution thread is best described as "strained" even though it benefits from comparison to the subplot romance of Hitch's client Albert (Kevin James, shortly before his transition from supporting roles to leading ones) and an heiress (Amber Valletta) whose conflict to resolution path unfolds at breakneck speed and with the aid of some of the film's most stilted dialogue, and it relies on a lot of "low hanging fruit" type tropes in order to move its story along and orient the audience in terms of the characters. Still, it's funny enough to correctly identify it as a comedy, and charming enough to qualify as a romance, and given that Hollywood seems to have entirely forgotten how to make romantic comedies in the last few years, it's almost a breath of fresh air even though it's ten years old.


Wendell Ottley said...

Hitch is dated and trite, but it still works. Like you said, a lot of this is due to Smith. It's a role perfectly suited for him. It's not a great movie, but so charming. Its become a favorite around my house.

Norma Desmond said...

So true - it's entertaining despite itself.