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Mister Romance 

Romantic comedies are usually vehicles for fluffy stories, likeable characters and happy endings. It's not very often in one of these films that good acting upstages all else. But that's the case here. And just about all of that fluffy, likeable, happy stuff is good, to boot.

True, Will Smith still hasn't developed much of a leading man status; even in Ali, he was overshadowed by the legend he was portraying. But here, as a "date doctor," a sort of coach-therapist for men who can't figure out how to approach the women of their dreams, he imbues his character, Hitch, with self-assurance, with the convincing manner a teacher needs to get through to his students. And Smith is up to the task. He's never been more relaxed and comfortable in a role.

Huzzahs also go to Kevin James, till now a stand-up comic and Star Search graduate who's been playing second banana to, or getting less attention than, the fetching Leah Remini on The King of Queens. But his transition to feature film works in every way. He plays Albert, an executive tax consultant who has his eyes, heart and all his thoughts on the beautiful heiress Allegra (the luminous but down to earth Amber Valletta), even though he knows she's way out of his league. James plays Albert as a bundle of nerves, tics and clumsiness -- a walking pratfall who happens to be thoughtful and full of self-doubt.

Eva Mendes plays Sara, a workaholic gossip columnist who is too busy for a boyfriend (but really could use one). While she has her share of good scenes, she plays the part with an over-eager approach -- similar to, but less ditzy than her role in Stuck on You.

The film first goes about the lengthy business of introducing its main and minor characters, sometimes with pizzazz. It starts with Hitch addressing the camera directly, showing himself to be a smooth operator, chattering away about the right and wrong way to get women to open their eyes to men. It turns out that he's actually talking to a number of different clients (some would say losers) who are attempting to learn his magic. And soon the camera is off him, and following those clients, now out there in the dating world, fumbling their way through trying to put his longwinded advice to practice (with the O'Jays' "Love Train" urging them along in the background).

Hitch has his scruples. He won't have anything to do with cads who are out looking for a one-night stand; he's in it to help good-hearted people find what might turn into true love. Of course, the old saying about those who can't do it, teach it, comes into play. And Hitch, even with his fancy duds and cool apartment and all that know-how about how to win over a woman, ultimately is alone. He's out in the clubs trying to do something about his single status, and he does demonstrate some inventiveness in words and actions. But even when, inevitably, he meets up with Sara, who "wants to be alone," it's not going to be an easy task for him to open her eyes to him.

The film, through witty, breezy and fresh writing -- and despite a few bouts of utter silliness -- eventually trains its focus on Hitch and Sara and on Albert and Allegra, and how their unlikely and slow-starting relationships are progressing.

Soon it's the banter, even more than the acting, that's grabbing audience attention. The casual language going back and forth between Hitch and a woman he tries to pick up in a bar early in the film, gives way later to Hitch and Sara speaking to each other only in the third person as they do the uneasy, first-date, "What are we doing here?" dance.

Speaking of dancing, James, using his generous bulk to great comic effect, attempts to wow Hitch with his dancing prowess, but comes across as a sort of overstuffed cartoon character. .

The only times the film falters, aside from Mendez's general over-exuberance, are in a long sequence with an angry Sara and a confused Hitch -- all, of course over a typical romantic comedy misunderstanding -- that's misplayed and overwritten; and right near the end, when a couple of uncalled-for surprises threaten to turn things a little too cute and precious. Fortunately everything rebounds nicely and scores. And if that ever-important happy ending isn't enough, viewers are treated to the parting gift of a group dance sequence even odder than James' earlier solo.

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