Hitch Has Star Power, Box Office Allure, but What Else?

The closest thing I have to a neighborhood multiplex is the Loews Orpheum on Third Avenue and 86th Street. It

The closest thing I have to a neighborhood multiplex is the Loews Orpheum on Third Avenue and 86th Street. It is there that I trudged off to see Hitch at an early-morning screening, simply because this lukewarmly reviewed comedy had soared to a $46 million opening-week box-office take, far outpacing other current releases and lingering Oscar nominees. I didn’t expect much from Hitch and, not surprisingly, I didn’t get much-but I was entranced by the film nonetheless, from a historical perspective. Let me explain.

Directed by Andy Tennant, from a screenplay by Kevin Bisch, Hitch tells the story of an upscale, African-American urban hustler named Hitch (Will Smith), who markets his dating expertise to an array of physically unprepossessing single men with crushes on beautiful but unapproachable babes. With one exception, his clients are all white, and (with this one exception) so are the babes. Here we have, then, an African-American stud type instructing his nebbishy white clients on how to make out with the white women of their dreams.

As time goes on, Hitch falls in love with a gossip columnist named Sara (Eva Mendes), and after the mandatory misunderstanding, all ends happily for Hitch, Sara and all the other nice people in the film, not the least of whom is Max (Adam Arkin), Sara’s employer at a newspaper that is anachronistically New Dealish in its tender concern for the welfare of its working stiffs.

A cluster of little white girls sitting noisily in front of me squealed with delight at all the sexless kissing and facetious flirting in this otherwise chaste PG-13 “makeout” romance. And though my knees were bruised by their frequent rocking back and forth with glee, I resisted the impulse to move to a quieter section of the mostly empty auditorium, because I was too busy concentrating on my improvised role as a consumer consultant trying to make sense of that $46 million first-week bonanza.

Obviously, Hitch is the latest manifestation of a color-blind tendency in the celebrity culture flooding the media, though not quite finding its way down to American society (in both red and blue states) and the bulk of wedding announcements in The New York Times. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not as far as Oprah and Whoopi and P. Diddy et al. would make it seem.

Of course, Mr. Smith is one of the biggest box-office attractions around. He’s come a long way since Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation (1993) gave him his breakthrough role. In that film, based on the John Guare play, Mr. Smith was a charismatic street hustler (based on a real-life con man) who dupes New York socialites into believing that he’s the temporarily stranded son of Sidney Poitier. Of course, Mr. Smith has become a bigger movie star than Mr. Poitier ever was, despite the latter’s comparatively solitary eminence as the pre-eminent African-American icon of his time. By contrast, Mr. Smith is flourishing in what has clearly become the golden age of African-American actors, which includes such standouts as Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac, Djimon Hounsou, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames, to name just a few.

I can still remember when Hattie McDaniel sat alone in the back of the room at the Academy Awards banquet at which she received her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing “Mammy” in Victor Fleming’s (and David O. Selznick’s) Gone with the Wind (1939). I also remember Lena Horne being restricted to non-dramatic singing cameos in MGM’s all-star musicals. Much later, Joan Fontaine received hate mail for years for daring to hold hands with Harry Belafonte in Robert Rossen’s Island in the Sun (1957). Later, on television, Petula Clark committed the same indiscretion with Mr. Belafonte during a joint musical number; a flood of outraged phone calls poured into the network. Perhaps most deplorably, back in 1950, Jackie Robinson wasn’t allowed to kiss his on-screen wife (played by Ruby Dee) in Alfred E. Green’s The Jackie Robinson Story, because, as the film’s producer put it, white Southern audiences would get too agitated watching two “colored people” kissing.

Hence, Hollywood has a long history of racial bigotry to atone for long after D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) started American movies on the wrong side of the civil-rights struggle. But this is not why American movies seem to have become color-blind. The real reason is the huge size, proportionately, of the inner-city audiences that still flock to movies on opening weeks. Also, the musical integration of young people via pop and hip-hop has completed the box-office equation that makes movies like Hitch not only feasible, but mandatory.

Even so, the crowning irony at the screening of Hitch I attended was actually found in the coming attractions, in the trailer for a new film in which an African-American girl surprises her family by bringing a white boyfriend home-the reverse of the situation in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), in which Katharine Houghton startles her parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) by introducing Sidney Poitier as her intended husband. Of course, the Poitier character back then had to be noble enough to be potential Nobel Prize material in order to qualify for the exalted honor of marrying into a white family. This was the joke-filled burden that Mr. Poitier had to endure during his long reign as a token black man in an otherwise lily-white industry.

It’s a measure of Hollywood’s current mediocrity that Mr. Smith has become a huge star not primarily by developing his talent in gritty roles like those of his debut film, Marc Rocco’s Where the Day Takes You (1992), or the aforementioned Six Degrees of Separation, Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998) and Michael Mann’s Ali (2001), but by flexing his muscles and good looks in a succession of mindless buddy-buddy action flicks, some sci-fi-oriented and some not, but all with special effects exploding all over the place. These exercises in opulent nonsense include Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), Wild Wild West (1999), Men in Black II (2002) and Bad Boys II (2003). Nonetheless, one can settle these days for a mediocre movie being painless and inoffensive, and Hitch, at least, is that. Indeed, the free-for-all wedding-dance ending even manages a modicum of good-natured charm, which is more than I can say for Mr. Smith’s opening smart-alecky asides to the audience as a way of showing from the outset that his character is in complete charge of the proceedings. This cinematic mannerism has been overused to the point of terminal fatuousness.

Hitch’s major client is the avoirdupois-challenged Albert, a tax accountant infatuated with his rich and pretty client, the celebrity heiress known to the tabloids as Allegra (Amber Valletta). Fortunately, talented TV-sitcom character actor Kevin James makes a very graceful and often very funny slapstick partner for Mr. Smith in their strenuous monkey-see-monkey-do routines on how to sweep a woman off her feet with a well-timed kiss. It’s all very silly, both in terms of sociological probability and the movie law of elective affinities, but Mr. James almost pulls it off with his audience-pleasing warm vibes, which are reminiscent of the late Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle (1887-1933).

Also, Mr. Bisch’s screenplay is not entirely lacking in snappy singles banter, particularly in an initially promising speed-dating scene that is foolishly cut short to accommodate the ponderous squabbling between Hitch and Sara. Of course, the contemporary “making out” scene is as mysterious to me as the more arcane rituals of the Easter Islanders long, long ago. Still, the only convincing barroom pick-up lines I’ve heard onscreen in recent years were delivered by George Clooney to Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s much-underrated Out of Sight (1998). Then again, from what I hear, it doesn’t take much in the way of male wit to hook up in today’s supposedly permissive climate, in which Desperate Housewives is a big hit even in the red states.

By contrast, Hitch is governed by true love alone. Hence, the one out-and-out heartless seducer who pops up among Hitch’s old-fashioned Hollywood-romantic clients is given short shrift with a well-placed knee to the groin. Yes, kiddies, it’s what the cad deserved. Now stop banging your seats against my knees.

Home Alone in Tokyo

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, reportedly based on a true story, has been one of the most favorably reviewed art-film attractions of the new year. The story is concerned primarily with four child siblings: Akira, the oldest at 12 (Yûya Yagira); his slightly younger sister, Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura); their still younger brother, Shigera (Hiei Kimura); and their little sister, Yuki (Momoko Shinizu), the youngest. This close-knit family unit struggles to survive when they’re abandoned by their feckless single mother, Keiko (played by You, a well-known Japanese television star).

The children all have different fathers-each of whom, in turn, has deserted the mother, who has hidden three of the children from the landlord for fear of being evicted as a potentially insolvent caregiver. The title of the film comes from the mother’s admonition to the children to be quiet at all times so as to avoid detection.

When the film begins, the children have already learned to fend for themselves during their mother’s frequent trips for jobs in other cities. One day, the mother leaves the children for good to remarry in another city, entrusting their care to 12-year-old Akira.

There is very little else to the narrative, as Mr. Kore-eda, a former prize-winning documentarian before his feature-film career (with four movies thus far), skillfully zeroes in on the daily details of the children’s improvised existence without parental supervision. They have never gone to school, but they study feverishly on their own. We are made aware of their intimate moments of interaction with each other and with the mostly indifferent environment of a busy, bustling city.

There is no particular message in the film. Mr. Kore-eda is not blaming “society” in any way, and I suppose this lack of special pleading helped the film with the critics. I must confess, however, that I became a little restive with the loving attention the director lavishes on his four beleaguered protagonists, joined eventually by a teenage girl-school dropout named Saki (Hanae Kan), who forms a platonic attachment with Akira. There is, in the end, a fatal accident that leaves the family in a saddened but still resolute state. The resilience and resourcefulness of all children provides the implied inspirational subtext of the film.

There are perhaps too many eating scenes in noisily masticating close-up for my taste, and yet we sense that the director completely identifies with the children’s fear of being discovered by the authorities and irrevocably separated from each other. This is the only suspenseful element in the film, but I found Mr. Kore-eda’s view of Japanese society so remarkably benign that I wondered if it conformed to real life, or rather was a sentimental construct of his own devising. Either way, the children are behaviorally remarkable under his intuitively affectionate direction. Then again, perhaps I’m getting a little tired of this seemingly endless procession from around the world of marvelously talented child actors.

Pictorial Histories

Cinevardaphoto (at the Film Forum till March 1) is the self-explanatory title of three short films by Agnès Varda: Ydessa, the Bears and Etc., Ulysses and Salut les Cubains. All three films focus on Ms. Varda’s interest in the affinity of photography-her first profession and obsession-to her subsequent cinematic career, and all three films take unexpected twists and turns, both aesthetic and political.

Ydessa Hendeles, who now lives in Toronto, is the child of Holocaust survivors. In early February 2004, Ms. Varda was passing through Munich, where she discovered a new museum that had once served as a meeting place for Nazi rallies. Three big rooms were devoted to a collection entitled “The Teddy Bear Project.” In two of the rooms, there were some 2,000 to 3,000 old photographs in black frames piled up from floor to ceiling. Many were group photos; others were shots of little children, with or without their parents. All of the photos, however, showed a teddy bear, whose name was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt, who had once spared the life of a bear while on a hunting trip. As it turned out, the name had taken root in Germany as well as in the United States.

The third room was completely empty, except for a horrifying small statue of a kneeling Adolf Hitler-thus casting the thousands of photos in the other two rooms in the more sobering context of the mortality of their subjects, against which photography itself battled. Ms. Varda completes the film by interviewing Ydessa in Toronto.

Ulysses (1982) tells the story of a photograph that Ms. Varda took in May, 1954, of a naked man and a boy on a beach, with a dead goat sprawled in the foreground. At around that time, the French were defeated in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu, and the entire nation went into mourning.

Salut les Cubains ( Hi to the Cubans) consists of a kinetic montage of 1,800 black-and-white photos that Ms. Varda took in Cuba in 1963, four years after Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution overthrew the Batista regime. The high spirits of a people seemingly dancing for joy in the 1963 montage is contrasted with Ms. Varda’s second thoughts in 2004:

“Today, 40 years later, all the sadness caused by the lost illusions comes out of the film. We know the Cuban economy is disastrous; prices for the staples are outrageous. ‘There are only two things that work in Cuba: propaganda and repression’ (quoting C. Sorg). We are appalled by the bad behavior of a left-wing dictatorship-just think of the ‘dissidents’ put in prison in 2003, among them are the poet and journalist Raul Rivero and the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe. This cheerful, documented film reminds us that the energy, the hope and the enthusiasm really did exist in 1962. But …. ” A multitude of meanings is embedded in that “But … ,” as Ms. Varda confronts the treachery of time through looking at old photographs anew. Hitch Has Star Power, Box Office Allure, but What Else?