Smith sweeps us off our feet with romantic comedy

With `Hitch,' he returns to genre that put him on map

Movies: On Screen, DVD/ Video

February 10, 2005|By Annette John-Hall | Annette John-Hall,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

He's fought off aliens, drug lords, the CIA and -- ay! -- robots. Heck, he even brought George Foreman to his knees. Now, in Hitch, his first romantic comedy since he burst onto the small screen as the Fresh Prince, Will Smith finds himself in the battle of the sexes.

Smith, the quintessential ladies' man -- who's resplendent with his actress wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, on the cover of this month's Essence -- plays "date doctor" Alex Hitchens, creating situations to help ordinary guys snag the girls of their dreams.

"No matter what, no matter when, no matter who, any man has a chance to sweep any woman off her feet," Hitch observes. "He just needs the right broom."

A smooth operator, funny and debonair, Smith demonstrates in Hitch, which opens tomorrow, that he's just as proficient at wooing the sultry Sara (Eva Mendes) as he is at beating back three-headed monsters.

Which doesn't exactly come as a revelation. Even during his days as the fun-loving, slightly goofy Fresh Prince, Smith had "leading man" written all over him. But it has taken Smith, 36, more than a decade to make his way back to romance.

"I'm much more at home in the romantic comedy genre," he says by telephone from Honolulu, where he was promoting the film.

"Anybody who loved the Fresh Prince will love Hitch."

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the hip-hop-inflected comedy series that aired for six years starting in 1990, not only transitioned Smith from wholesome MC to comedic actor, but also left its imprint on pop culture. Folks found themselves rapping along with Smith during the show's catchy theme song, making fools of themselves doing the "Carlton dance," and copying Will and Jazz's ("Jazzy" Jeff Townes, Smith's sidekick on the show) easy-breezy handshake.

Smith, playing the lovable, wayward nephew from West Philly who brought a grounded sensibility to his haughty relatives, was the TV show's heart and soul. Only 21 when The Fresh Prince debuted, he oozed the kind of charm that made him a natural to romance the likes of Tyra Banks and Nia Long, who played his girlfriends on the show.

But as he jumped from the small screen to the big one, something happened -- he morphed from a fresh prince of bubble-gum romance into the crown prince of action thrillers.

Smith ruled the box office with blockbusters and their follow-ups, such as Bad Boys, Men in Black, Independence Day, Enemy of the State and I, Robot. The films made him a superstar, but apart from his Oscar-nominated turn in 2001's Ali (in which he decked Charles Shufford playing Foreman), he was in danger of being typecast.

And it was by his own design.

"Those kinds of movies were the ones that made me want to make movies in the first place," Smith says. "When I was growing up, Star Wars was the first film I appreciated. Then came Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours. Now, my tastes have changed. ... Today the film I can't stop watching is Casablanca."

Part of the reason is professional practicality: "I'm 36. I can't make those [action] films much past 40." The other reason has to do with growing up.

"I have to relinquish childhood tastes," he says. "The Cary Grant comedies, movies like Forrest Gump or Philadelphia -- those are more to my adult tastes."

Married seven years, Smith and Pinkett Smith have one of Hollywood's model marriages. The couple are parents of Jaden, 6, Willow, 4, and Trey, 12, Smith's son from his first marriage. Instead of indulging in real-life drama over their merged family, the Smiths created and produced a comedy series for UPN, All of Us, loosely based on their experience.

"Jada and I don't just love our relationship, we study it," Smith says, adding that the key is "blatant honesty. ... Jada knows who I am, and I know who I am."

Which is a good thing, considering his sizzling on-screen chemistry with the beautiful Mendes (Training Day, Out of Time).

"It's simple. Eva Mendes is fine, a beautiful young actress. Am I going to try to sleep with her or not? No. If I answer the question truthfully, we can move along. The complexity only comes in with a lie," he says.

Spoken as only a true love doctor can.

For film events, see Page 35.

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