Happy Willentine's Day! <I>Hitch</I> worth hooking up with

For more than half its length, Hitch makes two points that surprised me: Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Hollywood can still turn out a good, commercial romantic comedy; and Will Smith really is as cool as he thinks he is.

It's slick, it's funny, it's romantic; it strikes the right balance between the fresh and the familiar. It not only affirms Smith's star status but shows Eva Mendes, after several major roles as The Girl, is ready to be The Woman, and that standup comic-turned-TV star Kevin James (The King of Queens) has a future on the big screen.

Somewhere in the second hour the creative team falters. Novice writer Kevin Bisch struggles to come up with problems that can be resolved for a happy ending, dragging out the film's center to miniseries proportions; and director Andy Tennant, making something akin to a modern fairy tale– his best previous film was Ever After– goes along, losing control of the pacing that was working so well.

What's worse is that the draggy midsection gives you time to think about things you may have overlooked, like the main character doesn't make sense.

Alex Hitch Hitchens (Smith), a.k.a. "The Date Doctor," is an expert at getting people hitched. Men come to him with their romantic fantasies, and he makes them come true. "Any man has a chance to sweep any woman off her feet," he preaches. "He just needs the right broom."

Hitch supplies the broom, usually self confidence combined with a little technique and a few tricks– "With no guile and no game there's no girl."

Hitch is a true romantic. He won't help a guy whose only goal is to get laid. "Hit-it-and-quit-it ain't my thing," he says. So what is his thing? He's obviously got quite a way with the ladies himself, but he's not looking for a relationship; so if he practices what he preaches, he must be celibate.

It's almost a moot point since, this being a movie, he's about to fall in love. The lucky woman, Sara Melas (Mendes), is as guarded as Hitch is. She's a New York gossip columnist who reports on other people's romances while having none of her own.

Hitch's latest client, Albert Brennaman (James), is the loser's loser, a tax consultant with a yen for one of his clients, Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), a poor little rich girl who's famous but not enjoying it. It's a real challenge for Hitch but nothing he can't handle, until Sara smells a story and goes after it.

The two budding romances get about equal weight in the narrative and start to lose our interest around the same time as the film's wheels spin and spin without making contact with the ground to move forward.

For all its flaws, Hitch is the best date movie (What's the competition? The Wedding Date?) out there for Valentine's Day. It ultimately falls short of classic status, but it's good entertainment, especially for the Will-ing.