‘Hancock’ good for a few laughs
Universal Press Syndicate
Aspen, CO Colorado
I have been waiting for this for years: a superhero movie where the actions of the superheroes have consequences in the real world. They always leave a wake of crashed cars, bursting fire hydrants, exploding gas stations and toppling bridges behind them, and never go back to clean up. But John Hancock, the hero of “Hancock,” doesn’t get away with anything. One recent heroic stunt ran up a price tag of $7 million, he’s got hundreds of lawsuits pending, and when he saves a stranded whale by throwing it back into the sea, you can bet he gets billed for the yacht it lands on.
Hancock, the latest star showcase for Will Smith, has him playing a Skid Row drunk with super powers and a super hangover. He does well, but there are always consequences, like when he saves a man whose car is about to be struck by a train, but causes a train wreck. What he needs is a good PR man. Luckily, the man whose life he saved is exactly that. He’s Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman, the adopting father in “Juno”), and Ray has a brainstorm: He’ll repay Hancock by giving him a complete image makeover. If this sounds like a slapstick comedy, strangely enough it isn’t. The movie has a lot of laughs, but Smith avoids playing Hancock as a goofball and shapes him as serious, thoughtful and depressed.
Embrey the PR whiz brings Hancock home to dinner to meet his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and son, Aaron (Jae Head). The first time she meets him, Mary gives Hancock an odd, penetrating look. Also the second time, and also the third time. OK, OK all ready: We get it. One odd, penetrating look after another. They have some kind of a history, but Hancock doesn’t know about it, and Mary’s not talking.
She has a lot to keep quiet about, although thank goodness she eventually opens up, or the movie wouldn’t have a second half. I will not reveal what she says, of course, because her surprise is part of the fun. I am willing to divulge some of the setup, with Ray coaching Hancock to start saying “thank you” and “you did a good job here,” and stop flying down out of the sky and crushing $100,000 cars. Ray also gets him a makeover: Gone is the flophouse wardrobe, replaced by a slick gold and leather costume, and Hancock gets a shave, too. Does it himself, with his fingernails.
He appeared some 80 years ago in Miami, as far as he knows. He doesn’t know very far. He has no idea where his powers came from, or why he never grows any older. He can fly at supersonic speeds, stop a speeding locomotive, toss cars around, and in general do everything Superman could do, but not cleanly, neatly or politely. Part of his reform involves turning himself in to the law and serving a prison term, although the chief of police has to summon him from prison to help with a bank hostage crisis. (In prison, there’s a guy named Man Mountain who must not read the papers, or he would never, ever try to make Hancock his victim.)
It’s not long after the bank hostage business that Mary reveals her secret, Hancock starts asking deep questions about himself, and the movie takes an odd, penetrating turn. This is the part I won’t get into, except to say that the origin stories of superheroes consistently underwhelm me, and Hancock’s is one of the most arbitrary. Even Mary, who knows all about him, doesn’t know all that much, and I have a shiny new dime here for any viewer of the movie who can explain exactly how Hancock came into being.
Not that it matters much anyway. I guess he had to come into being somehow, and this movie’s explanation is as likely as most, which is to say, completely preposterous. Still, “Hancock” is a lot of fun, if perhaps a little top-heavy with stuff being destroyed. Will Smith makes the character more subtle than he has to be, more filled with self-doubt, more willing to learn. Jason Bateman is persuasive and helpful on the PR front, and it turns out Charlize Theron has a great deal to feel odd and penetrating about.
Where is it written that superheroes have to be selfless? What would happen if an individual with supernatural powers was surly, self-absorbed and acid-tongued? Would he still be a hero? Would people still want him around?
“Hancock,” the new Will Smith vehicle, asks those smart questions, but after initial moments of success its answers get dumb and dumber. It’s a strange feeling to see the summer’s most promising premise self-destruct into something bizarre and unsatisfying, but that is the “Hancock” experience.
Probably no one but Smith, possibly the most likable actor in the world, could have breathed the right kind of life into this unusual character, first met sleeping off a monumental binge on a bench in Los Angeles.
Being hung over, we soon learn, is business as usual for Hancock, a superhero who hangs out in dive bars, drinks from the bottle and wears ragged clothes and a wool cap that has seen better days.
Yes, Hancock has all of Superman’s talents ” he is ridiculously strong, invulnerable and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound ” but because he often is drunk and/or hung over when the call to action comes, he causes as much trouble as he prevents.
As written by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan and directed by Peter Berg, “Hancock” takes misanthropic glee in its deconstruction of the conventions of superheroism. It’s abrasive as all get out, but Smith’s charisma and the cleverness of the concept keep us in the picture. But then, just about without warning, “Hancock” makes an unexpected and head-shaking plot turn that derails the film in a way that it never recovers from. This second part of “Hancock” has the further disadvantage of coming up with its convoluted rules as it goes along, making it especially hard to understand what is happening to its characters or the reasons for its events.
The creators of “Hancock” truly had a tiger by the tail with their primary idea, and once they let go, the beast turned around and swallowed them whole. This is Hollywood, after all, a town without pity. Or, for that matter, anything resembling good common sense.
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