The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
Watching Hitch in 2021 is an interesting experience. On the one hand, it’s very easy to see why it was a blockbuster hit the year it premiered; Will Smith is a tremendous movie star and if there’s any genre that can allow that charm and persona to go to work to commercially crowd-pleasing effect, a rom-com must surely rank at the top of the list.
Up until 2005, his career had mostly consisted of action films and sci-fi with a comedic bent. Having made his name as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith hit the ground running with his movie career in 1995, starring in the Michael Bay-directed and Bruckheimer/Simpson produced Bad Boys, after having shown considerable dramatic range in Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation two years previously.
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It was 1996 that sealed the deal. Independence Day was a massive blockbuster, the biggest film of its year, fuelled by a tremendous promotional campaign that predominantly sold itself not on its cast but on the fact that it featured world-famous landmarks, including the White House, being blown to smithereens spectacularly by giant alien spaceships. Surprisingly, the film had a certain level of knowledgable B-movie charm but was dotted with an A-list cast of which Smith emerged as a genuine star, combining an action movie persona with a comedic charm that he had perfected on the small screen. From there, he moved on to the likes of Men in Black and Enemy of the State, films that winningly combined his ability to deliver laughs and charm but in action or sci-fi settings. In some respects, Hitch felt like the first time we got to see that winning persona and charm in a big-screen narrative a world away from aliens, UFOs and action set-pieces.
It’s a film that feels very rooted to Smith’s screen persona. He does a voiceover, and breaks the fourth wall to communicate his character’s job and philosophy on the dating scene at various points; the latter in a film like this always putting one in mind of Michael Caine’s star-making performance in 1966’s Alfie. However, his character and actions cannot help but give one pause while watching the movie today.
While the film was marketed and promoted as having a lead character who is a dating expert, in reality he’s nothing more but a pick-up artist, helping so-called nice guys get together with the women they like from afar. It ends up coming across as creepy rather than charming today, given that the character of Alex ‘Hitch’ Hitchen’s methods include manipulative tactics such as dognapping, and making one of his clients look like he’s saved the mutt’s life in order to look heroic, not to mention the entire monologue that opens the film in which our lead character extols the idea that when a woman says she isn’t available, what she really means is that she is; a notion that plays somewhat differently in light of #TimesUp and #MeToo. It can’t help but feel as if the film is saying that if a woman says no, what she really means is yes.
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It says a lot about Smith’s performance, his chemistry with Eva Mendes, and the reminder that a long time ago Kevin James was someone who actually had a modicum of comedic talent, and like so many romantic comedies from their era, that you can at least just enjoy the glossy fun of it all even if the gender politics give you pause for thought and remind you that things were viewed differently than they are today.
Being a film of this genre, it’s no surprise to note that Mendes’ character Sara works for a newspaper and is a gossip columnist, with scenes involving her trying to balance her work life and romantic possibilities, and the witty back and forth banter she shares with her boss (in this case Adam Arkin) sharing plot and character elements with an entire list of films from the genre, all the way back to It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday.
If the film were remade today (and a television series was in development back in 2014), it’s possible that the take on the material might be very different. Even though gender dynamics and relationships are part and parcel of the film’s story, it’s not really intending to get to grips with those ideas. Andy Tennant’s direction is very glossy here and presents another blue sky, borderline fairy tale depiction of New York that feels much like the same environment that Sex and the City existed in, and one where everybody is impossibly good looking, hangs out at expensive restaurants, and works in well paid, high-income jobs with nothing to worry about except finding ‘the one’. Being a film of 2005 also means that every relationship within it is presented in a heteronormative context, which leaves one to ponder if Hitch pairs up men with other men – and let’s be clear, men are his only clients throughout the film.
In perhaps one of the most tone-deaf scenes of the film, Hitch finds himself justifying his career to Sara during their inevitable break up at the end of the second act, as him being a means by which to protect women from ‘the bad men’. The whole speech comes about when a more salacious client of Hitch shows himself to be a cad who is only looking for sex and ends up emotionally hurting Sara’s friend as a result. The moment is, I guess, supposed to be a wake-up call for Sara, that she is, in fact, wrong about the morally correct Hitch and that in truth we need male dating experts and pick-up artists to help stop other men from doing bad things to women. Of course, men do need to step up and call out abusive behaviour if and when they see it, but the way Hitch is positioning it, you can’t help but feel the film positing the idea that pick-up artists or male dating experts are the last lines of defence when it comes to misogynistic, predatory behaviour and that honestly plays as very tone-deaf today.
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It might seem strange to be reading too much into what is essentially a glossy 2005 romantic comedy featuring Will Smith and Kevin James doing silly dance moves right before the end credits roll, but it also gets to the heart at how much films like these are a clear reflection of the times they were released and how the world was mostly viewed by audiences, filmmakers and storytellers who believed they were reflecting some aspect of the world right back to us.
You can’t help but poke the film a little with a reality check despite the glossy fun there is to be had with it; and make no mistake, it is still fun even if you can’t help but roll your eyes at many parts of it. What cannot be denied and which cannot help but remain a big draw here, even if the film’s gender politics are incredibly problematic, is the sheer magnetism of its leading man.