How about this for plus-size praise: Kevin James, the big, sweaty sweetheart of the new romantic comedy "Hitch," is the funniest movie fat man since John Belushi.
Yes, the late, great lummoxes John Candy and Chris Farley were incandescent talents who turned crummy movies into guilty-pleasure cable faves. Cedric the Entertainer usually kills with his chubby cool-cat act. And Jack Black certainly isn't afraid to go with his gut.
Will Smith stars as matchmaker Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, who tries to help chubby Albert (Kevin James) make the right moves on a willowy heiress.
(Barry Wetcher -- Columbia Pictures)
But in the flawed but likable "Hitch," about a 9-to-5 schlub who hires a "date doctor" to help him seduce an heiress (played by wispy supermodel Amber Valletta), James takes the bittersweet ballet of the obese to a painfully hilarious new realm. A former standup comic best known for the TV sitcom "The King of Queens," James is not the puckish scamp Belushi was -- the frisky eyebrows, the happy feet, the fearlessness. Instead, he's the gentle but frustrated Everydope: glooping mustard on his shirt, flop-sweating before a first kiss, glooping mustard on his pants. He's desperate to shed his own skin, and watching him try to do so -- his nervous line delivery is as potent as his pratfalls -- hurts so good.
Of course, if you've seen the posters and trailers for "Hitch," you know this is, first and foremost, A Will Smith Movie. Hmm, you ask: Isn't it a bad sign that the box-office stud of the summer season is dropping a flick into the dead cinema sea of February?
The movie does get off to an ominous start, with Smith talking to the camera and simplifying the female psyche for would-be suitors -- "No guile, no game, no girl." "Hitch" initially looks like a remake of the remake of "Alfie," which, as the five people who saw it last year can attest, was stinky. Plus, "Hitch" is built on such ridiculous coincidences, it's as if New York has a population of about 14 and these folks just keep getting in each other's way. And it takes way too long to get James's Albert Brennaman into the action; once he shows up, you'll be afraid to dash to the concession stand for fear of missing a minute of him.
But Smith, as a professional smoothie whose wooing tips are in high demand from the love losers of New York, eventually helps James make "Hitch" a keeper. He ditches the slimy slickster routine and proves himself a commercially savvy star unafraid of mocking himself. After all, he couldn't let James get all the laughs.
Smith's Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, scarred from a past dumping and thus a commitment-phobe, gets his comeuppance when he falls for a curvaceous gossip columnist (Eva Mendes) who makes him lose his mojo. On their first date he accidentally kicks her in the face. On their second date he has an allergic reaction to dinner and puffs up, for some grotesque but great slapstick.
The pretty Smith and the prettier Mendes have a definite chemistry -- as brother and sister, perhaps. They're chummy, giggly, natural. You like them, but you just never believe they have the hots for each other, especially when director Andy Tennant ("Sweet Home Alabama") forgets he's making a comedy and strives for lumpy, weepy drama in the final act. You can probably guess the plot turns just from the obvious clues: gossip columnist, secret date doctor, sweet fat guy, aloof heiress. It gets all tangled and untangled, hearts are broken, hearts are healed.
But forget about the predictable twists: "Hitch" works best when it's a buddy comedy, with Smith and James having a blast as smooth Yoda and jiggly Jedi. The movie's sparkling centerpiece is an alternating montage of Hitch training Albert for his first date with Valletta's little rich girl and then the big man and his lady love out on their first date, which is not the expected disaster but is funny nonetheless. In previews for the movie, Smith's reaction to James's zany dance moves is the tired ol' black guy-white guy shtick: "Don't ever do that again." The real punch line, though, is James's earnest, stuttered response of "I was just trying to express myself." Trust me, it kills.
Tennant lets the serious denouement go on and on, but give him credit for tacking on a jubilant coda that takes place at a wedding, when the characters get down in a dance-off to Heavy D's "Now That We've Found Love." If you still don't believe a guy like James could get a gal like Valletta, you will once you see them doing the robot together. Score one for the big boys.
Hitch (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some obscenity and sexual situations.