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Love Will find a way

By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — They lean forward and gaze into each other's eyes. Anticipation builds as their lips gently pucker.

Softer side of Smith: Will Smith romances Eva Mendes and goofs with Kevin James in Hitch, opening Friday. Smith plays a man who gives dating advice.

By Todd Plitt, USA TODAY

Suddenly, Kevin James, TV's King of Queens, dives in and lays a dainty peck on the mouth of a shocked Will Smith. Cinema's king of the summer blockbuster recoils in mock disgust as he yells, "What the hell was that?"

The initial reaction of the New Yorkers who witnessed the filming of the smooch lesson gone awry for the courtship caper Hitch, opening Friday, wasn't much kinder.

"They had no idea what the movie was, no idea what the scene was," recalls Smith, who chuckles while seated in a high-rise eatery with a Central Park view the day after the movie's premiere. "All they see is me out on the corner kissing Kevin James. And this black dude screams out, 'Will, no! Uh-uh. Don't do that. Whatcha doing, Will?' "

Making amends, for one. The image-conscious actor came to regret his refusal to kiss a man as a gay hustler in 1993's Six Degrees of Separation, his breakout film that followed the popular sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and chart success as a rap artist.

But in these queer-eyed days, same-sex spit-swapping is de rigueur.

"It took someone like me to turn him," jokes James, who shines as a timid accountant who pines for Amber Valletta's stunning socialite. "I minted more for that kiss than the one with Amber."

Smith also is out to score some laughs. Much to the delight of his female admirers, the buff-and-polished action hero is finally starring in a romantic comedy. In Hitch, he's a lover, not a fighter. There are no aliens to battle. No androids gone amok. No big guns, bad guys or pug dogs wailing disco classics.

Instead, the relationship romp is overrun with hapless males in desperate need of guidance on matters of the heart. That is where Smith's Hitch comes in. His job is to coach woeful Romeos so they can impress unattainable Juliets. Meanwhile, Hitch must conquer his own commitment fears when he gets an itch for a sassy gossip columnist.

Eva Mendes, who plays the tabloid tattler, says of Smith, "God, he's so sexy. Women are going to respond to him in a different way. You really see his vulnerability."

Today, he's attired to inspire such thoughts in an urban preppy getup of Lacoste pullover and baggy jeans. The final touch: the multi-carat diamond rocks that anchor his unmistakable stuck-out ears.

"It was strange for me, stripping it down to essentially just talking," says Smith, 36, of his genre switch. "No blue screens, nothing. To perform honestly and emotionally with a robot, that's a skill I've developed. But I love the interaction between Eva and me. I'm so at home in that romantic space."

His action days are waning

As his melon-sized biceps prove, he's also at home in the gym, lifting weights and running. But the routine can be a grind. "I'm going to stay in shape for about four more years," he vows between bites of bread. "Then I'm letting it all go. I'm going for the guy-with-the-gut roles. Soon as I'm 40, I'm going to stop watching what I eat."

This sci-fi junkie, who turned down a chance to go to MIT to pursue a music career, is smart enough to know that aging action heroes carry an expiration date. There are two paths to safeguarding your status: You can either mix it up as even Vin Diesel is doing in the upcoming comedy The Pacifier. Or run for governor of California, a post currently filled.

Smith also is reviving his hip-hop pursuits. His first solo album in nearly three years, Lost and Found, is due March 29.

This $20-million-a-movie club member, who also is a producer on Hitch, can afford a change of pace. A true superstar whose hot-weather outings have grossed more than $1 billion, he has ruled the July 4 box office on a regular basis since 1996's Independence Day. Now he's ready to set off a different kind of fireworks while seducing this weekend's Valentine's Day date crowd.

"Hitch is who I am," Smith assures. That would include the film's awkward college flashback in which the West Philly native exposes his inner Urkel. "Mike Lowrey from Bad Boys is my alter ego," he says, referring to his slick lady-killer detective. "That is who I dream of being."

He and his actress wife of seven years, Jada Pinkett Smith, go so far as to offer Hitch-style counseling to friends and family. "Jada and I study relationships. I am a student of male-female interaction."

Women likely will relish the sight of the Fresh Prince charming his way through love's pitfalls and pratfalls. But Sony, the studio behind Hitch, isn't taking any chances. Millions were invested in a Super Bowl ad to convince fans of his brawnier fare that their masculinity won't be compromised. "People generally look at romantic comedies as chick flicks. This one is not that," says Smith, who balances cutting up with James with canoodling with Mendes.

Learning from a master

He took his cues from one of the best in the biz: Cary Grant. "I love how Cary Grant could be so aggressive with women without losing his sensitivity," he says. "Like with Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. She broke his golf club. He runs up and balls his fist to punch her, but he knows he can't hit a woman. So he grabs her face and shoves her down."

Hence, the vicious food fight between Smith and Mendes, in which chopped veggies are the weapon of choice.

For someone who effortlessly sinks into the role of a dating coach, Smith has very little personal experience to draw upon. Not because he didn't have luck with the ladies. Just the opposite. "My first record came out when I was 17, three weeks before I graduated from high school. The women always knew who I was. It wasn't, um, the average teenage experience."

Smith, who had an '80s hit with partner DJ Jazzy Jeff aptly titled Girls Ain't Nothing But Trouble, continues: "When you are on the road, you are in town for one night, and the girl knows it's now or never. The dating is the walk from the lobby, up to the elevators to your room."

The easy pickings were swell for a while. But even men can't live by one-night stands alone. "You start to get a little older, and it's like, 'Wow. You don't know anything except I rap, and you are willing to do anything for me.' Well, that's not really for me then. That's for some person you don't really know, some fantasy of a guy who probably doesn't exist."

He's hitched to Jada

Not that Smith is incapable of long-term relationships with the opposite sex. He met his first crush when she was 3 and he was 2. They grew up together, and Stacey Alphonso remains one of his best friends. And his wife doesn't mind.

"I love women," he says, "and my desire to bathe and bask in femininity is the energy that creates the ability to love my wife. If you kill one, you kill the other."

Smith and his first wife, Sheree, mother of son Trey, 12, were divorced in 1995. He and Pinkett Smith were wed on New Year's Eve in 1997 and are the parents of son Jaden, 6, and daughter Willow, 4.

"Jada is a brick," he says, then amends it. "She's my cottony brick. She's a brick in reaction to her open wounds. Which most people are. I can see her clearly. From the first day, I knew who she was."

Hitch director Andy Tennant confirms that Smith is indeed the more romantic of the two. "It's all about the romance and taking it to the next level. He is a people pleaser. He excels at that."

So when other guys take their sweeties to see Hitch as a Valentine's treat, how will this celebrity couple spend the day?

No lame candy hearts here. "We don't generally celebrate holidays on the holidays," he says. "A few years ago we went to Hawaii in October. I surprised her, and we celebrated Valentine's Day. We had all the balloons and rose petals and all of that. We woke up the next day, and it was Valentine's Day all over again. For seven days in a row. The element of surprise is what makes it. You can't surprise anyone on Feb. 14."

Men, do you hear that? Don't do anything Monday for your best gal. Wait eight months to show how much you adore her. Tell her it was Will Smith's idea. She'll be so glad you made no effort on the actual day.

Then again, having a card and a couple of roses on hand might not be a bad idea.

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