Welcome back to the Hairpin Rom Com Club. It’s just like a book club, except the only thing you’re required to read is the opening credits. This week’s movie is Hitch, the 2005 Will Smith vehicle about Alex Hitchens, a “dating consultant” who thinks he knows everything about women until he meets cynical gossip columnist Sara Melas (Eva Mendes) and realizes that he’s just as clueless as all his clients.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, a quick summary: Alex Hitchens is a super smooth dude who is gets along really well with women, and has parlayed that affinity into a business in which he coaches men to help them land the women of their dreams. He researches the women in question, contrives situations in which the men can be shown in their best light (including, in the opening sequence, pretending that one of his clients has been hit by a car while rescuing a woman’s dog), then advises the men on how to make it through the first three dates and land the first kiss.
His main client in this movie is Albert Brennaman (Kevin James), an unlucky-in-love and average looking low-level accountant who is madly in love with one of his clients, the beautiful heiress and socialite Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). Through Hitch's interactions with Albert, we get to see how he works, and also that it’s mostly the things he can’t control or change about Albert that eventually become attractive to Allegra.
Then Hitch meets Sara. He does the remote version of showing up at her work to bug her for a date: he has a walkie-talkie delivered to her office, meaning that he essentially asks her out in front of all her coworkers. Of course, this goes terribly. His usual smooth goes out the window and he can’t figure out why, but of course she finds it endearing when he repeatedly tanks. Sara, though, has been hurt before. Her work as a tabloid journalist has sapped her of her belief in true love and blah blah blah cold hard exterior, etc. She starts looking into the urban legend of “The Date Doctor,” discovers that she’s been dating him herself, dumps him and decides to bury him, and runs a story about his business. Allegra in turn is dismayed to learn that Albert was working with Hitch, and they also break up.
But by the end of the movie, Hitch realizes that human connection and love can’t be contrived or coached, and the men declare their true love for the women, unstaged and unvarnished, and the women realize that true love is possible blah blah blah warm gooey center. It ends with a dance montage set at Albert and Allegra’s wedding.
If you look at the thirty romantic comedies that screened in the most theaters between 2005 and 2011, the ones that studios thought were going to be widely viewed and do well financially, you’ll notice something right away, and that something is a distinct lack of melanin. Hollywood romantic comedies–and this won’t be news to you, I know–are very, very white. In fact, if you look at those thirty movies, what you’ll find is that only two of them have non-white romantic leads: Hitch (Will Smith and Eva Mendes), The Back-Up Plan (Jennifer Lopez). You will find some ensemble rom coms with non-white actors (Halle Berry in New Year’s Eve; Queen Latifah, Jessica Alba, Jamie Foxx, and George Lopez in Valentine’s Day), but they aren’t carrying the movies. They’re visible, and they’re not playing two-dimensional sidekicks like actors of color are so often asked to do in rom coms (well, Queen Latifah arguably is). But they’re also not the stars. So Hitch is significant in that it’s rare, and it’s also significant because people expected big things from it: it screened in 3575 theaters, more than almost any other rom com in that period (it’s in second place behind Valentine’s Day, which screened 3665 theaters; The Back-Up Plan opened in 3280). The fact that Will Smith got to star in a rom com at all, then, was and is still a big deal.
But there’s a reason that his co-star here is Eva Mendes, and not Drew Barrymore, or Kate Hudson, or Jennifer Aniston, or one of the many other white rom com-friendly actresses who like to play journalists. It’s because if you cast him opposite a white actress, the movie immediately becomes about race–it becomes about an interracial relationship, and not just about a relationship. And, if you cast a Black actress, no white people will go see it. It’s no longer a “mainstream” movie, because white audiences can’t possibly be expected to empathize with two Black characters. One, sure. But two? Come on, now. Smith was very open about this at the time the movie was released:
There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it. We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up—that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.
So they cast Eva Mendes, a Latina actress, and white American audiences felt comfortable enough to go see it. But not so comfortable that it has happened since; there has not been a Hollywood rom com with two non-white leads since Hitch. Not a single one. There have been ensemble rom coms, like Think Like a Man, and Think Like a Man Too, and there have been movies like The Best Man Holiday, which are produced and distributed outside of the mainstream (that is, they are made outside of major studios and released in limited numbers of theaters). But there has been no Hitch equivalent in almost a decade–and it’s been a decade in which the rom com has been undergoing some fairly significant changes (Judd Apatow, I’ll get to you later).
But for all those changes, one thing has stayed the same: In rom com land, love is for white people, and occasionally for Jennifer Lopez.
Hitch is also a prime example of a common romantic comedy subplot that you probably recognize–the subplot of redemption. In fact, it contains two variations of the redemption subplot: the Coldhearted Redemption (Sara) and the Brokenhearted Redemption (Hitch). Both Sara and Hitch are skeptical about true love, but for different reasons. For Hitch, it’s because he got his heart broken in college and has been emotionally shut down ever since, even as he’s been having flings and helping other men find true love. “Love is my life,” Hitch tells Albert; “No, love is your job,” Albert replies. For Sara, it’s because she’s cynical about men and has spent her whole life being emotionally “guarded” ever since her little sister nearly died when they were kids. So they both need redemption, and they find it in each other. That kind of tension is what makes the movie more interesting to watch than a lot of romantic comedies, where only one character has an emotional backstory and exists only to redeem the other person.
But it’s not without its problems. Hitch is a movie about a pick-up artist–I’m sorry, “dating consultant”–a man who, in an effort to help men form meaningful long term relationships with women they love and respect, is willing to manipulate and deceive those women. Just a little, you understand: just enough to trick them “into getting out of their own way so that great guys like Albert Brennaman have a fighting chance.” He is a well-intentioned rake, a man who claims to like women but also makes a tidy living helping other men to pull one over on them. By the end of the movie, he has renounced his “basic principles” for getting couples together (only straight couples, by the way–the Date Doctor has no queer patients), but he’s still up to his old tricks; at the wedding in the final scene, he teams up with an old lady, who pretends that she’s choking so that Sara’s best friend will give her the Heimlich Maneuver. This impresses the old lady’s son, who is, naturally, super handsome and also supremely grateful to Sara’s friend. So even when Hitch says he's seen the error of his ways, that’s demonstrably not the case.
Which leaves us where? The pick-up artist rake is redeemed–of his heartbroken emotional shutdown and of his years of manipulating women–but he was also right about a lot of his clients, and is still taking new ones? And he is also upset because the world now knows about his business and lots of people want to hire him? It’s a good thing Will Smith is so damn charming in this movie, because otherwise, the mental gymnastics demanded of the viewer simply wouldn’t work. If you don't believe me, watch this clip.
I bet you don’t even remember now that this movie is full of problems and makes very little sense.
Previously: It Happened One Night
Chloe Angyal is a freelance journalist and is thisclose to getting her PhD in Romantic Comedies—er, Media Studies—from the University of New South Wales. You can read more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter at @chloeangyal.