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Love Brokers

New romantic comedies find Cupid cashing in

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What does it say about the state of romance in America that the two movies being released to coincide with Valentine's Day both center on relationships that in one way or another are based on financial arrangements? Has Pretty Woman begat Pretty Woeful?

During an age in which seemingly every day a money-grubbing rube will air the dirty laundry of his or her marriage on a trash-talk TV show, or a celebrity nitwit like Britney Spears will tie the knot and then severe it in less time than it takes most of us to fill out a tax form, it's easy to get cynical about love American-style. So perhaps it was prophetic when morgue-attendants-cum-amateur-pimps Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler dubbed themselves "Love Brokers" in 1982's Night Shift: In today's strain of romantic comedy, practically everyone's a love broker, wheeling and dealing their way into the hearts and minds of prospective partners.

For traditionalists, old-fashioned love stories can still be found in period pieces (Cold Mountain) or movies set in distant lands (Beyond Borders). But as titles like How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days, Deliver Us From Eva and Little Black Book attest, when it comes to love connections in present-day USA, mind games must be played and/or dollars must be doled out before anyone can even think about living happily ever after.

At least Hitch locates the romantic spark behind all those account-emptying checks being passed back and forth. A warm and witty comedy that unfortunately runs itself into the ground during its final act, the picture benefits immeasurably from the presence of Will Smith, who may or may not be a great actor but who is most assuredly a great movie star. There's something to be said for effortless magnetism, and in that respect, Smith has more in common with the sophisticated screwball comedians of the past than the coarse jokesters of today. He's at turns sly, suave and sexy as Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, who bills himself as the Date Doctor because of his ability to make a living by advising other men how to land the woman of their dreams. Charging a hefty fee for his services, he instructs his clients on how to be sensitive and attentive, a winning combo that guarantees results. An honorable man in a dubious profession — he refuses clients who are simply out to get laid — he finds his biggest challenge in the form of Albert (Kevin James), a clumsy, overweight accountant who's hopelessly under the spell of beautiful super-model Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). "I'm Michelangelo and you're my Sistine Chapel," Hitch tells Albert as they get set to undertake their mission improbable. But even as Hitch works hard for the money by sexing up roly-poly Albert, he unexpectedly finds his own romantic inclinations rising to the surface once he meets Sara Melas (Eva Mendes), a gossip columnist who — wouldn't you know it — is trying to uncover the true identity of the man known to New York at large as the Date Doctor.

God bless that social equalizer known as Hollywood cinema: In real life, a world-famous super-model like Allegra wouldn't let a no-name schlub like Albert get close enough to lick the mud off the bottom of her high heels, let alone engage her in conversation and sniff around like a dog in heat. But viewers who go with the flow will gladly put reality on pause in order to enjoy this movie's modest pleasures, among them the spirited efforts of its cast.

Eva Mendes, who's always come across as a Jennifer Lopez who can't act — no, wait, that would still make her Jennifer Lopez... never mind — initially has trouble keeping pace with a leading man as pretty as she is, but she ends up holding her own and even sneaking off with a couple of scenes. Kevin James enjoys an easy rapport with Smith, and there's an undeniable sweetness to the scenes in which he haltingly attempts to woo the mega-watt model (Amber Valletta does a good job of humanizing this character).

Unfortunately, rather than allow these appealing relationships — between Albert and Allegra, and between Hitch and Sara — to play out naturally, Hitch suddenly reverts to rigid formula in its final half-hour, unfolding no differently than any other modern movie of this type (How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days, Maid In Manhattan, Two Weeks Notice — you name it). There's a bogus case of mistaken identity that causes a rift between the lovebirds (one that, I might add, could easily be cleared up with a sentence or two of explanation); there are the scenes of the characters moping around, biding time until the script decides they should get back together; there's the "Oops, we fucked up" moment of realization; there's the madcap chase through the city streets, with the guy trying to stop the girl before she leaves town via plane, train or automobile; and finally, there's the long-winded declaration of love that rarely sounds honest and spontaneous but instead comes off as a screenwriter's contrivance. These predictable developments stand in the way of the simple thrill of watching likable characters connect with each other. Granted, dramatic conflict is an important ingredient in most stories, but the creators of these romantic comedies need to understand that sometimes all you need is love.

Still, patrons who catch Hitch are at least getting two-thirds of a good movie, which is far more than can be said for the poor fools who wander into The Wedding Date. We expect TV stars trying to make the transition to the big screen to find themselves saddled with sub-par material, but this one takes that notion to the extreme. To say that the script for The Wedding Date is bottom-of-the-barrel would be too kind; this one was already decomposing under a mountain of mulch before Will & Grace's Debra Messing unwisely fished it out.

Messing stars as Kat Ellis, a 30-something woman whose neurotic impulses are obviously meant to be endearing but who instead comes off as something of a pill. Required to fly to England to attend the wedding of her loathsome sister (Amy Adams), Kat can't stand the thought of arriving without a boyfriend especially since her ex-lover (Jeremy Sheffield) will be there as the best man. So Kat does what any normal woman would do: She drains her savings account of $6,000 in order to hire a male prostitute to pretend to be her boyfriend. Her stud of choice is Nick Mercer (Dermot Mulroney), who's somehow become a legendary man-whore — articles are even written about him in glossy magazines! — even though his musings on sex, love and relationships wouldn't even cut it on the Letters page of a third-rate men's magazine (put them in the same movie, and Hitch would grind this guy into dust).

Nick has presumably serviced hundreds of women, but he improbably falls in love with this insufferable whiner. For her part, Kat has shelled out $6,000 to perpetuate this ruse yet behaves like she can't stand to be in the same room with the man who's supposed to be her lover. Of course, she eventually comes around, and before long, she's having drunken, unprotected sex with a guy who's probably been to the doctor for VD treatments far more often than he's been to the dentist for cleanings.

Although the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the tepid Jennifer Aniston vehicle Picture Perfect, this was clearly inspired by the success of such Brit-flavored confections as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones's Diary. There's even the character of the tart-tongued lady pal (played by Sarah Parish), although unlike Weddings' Kristin Scott Thomas or Bridget's Shirley Henderson, this woman's neither funny nor charming, just a repellant vulgarian. Then again, she falls in line with the rest of this unappetizing swill, a criminal act perpetrated by director Clare Kilner and first-time scripter Dana Fox.

It's hard to gauge Messing's big-screen potential because her contradictory character is an impossible one to play. But Mulroney, who has a rakish charm that's been used well in other films (Lovely & Amazing, for instance), is simply terrible here: His slurred line readings, errant comic timing and glazed expression can't help but suggest that the actor got stoned before each and every take. And who could blame him? Hey, buddy, pass that bong, will ya? After enduring this turkey, I think we could all use a hit.

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