Hancock (review)

Hero Is as Hero Does

I thought: Brilliant! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? A reluctant superhero? Fantastic! Who asks for his superpowers, anyway? It would be a burden, wouldn’t it, about five minutes after the ability to fly wears out its welcome, which would be about ten minutes after you find you can fly in the first place? And by reluctant I don’t mean like those annoying Fantastic Four people, who appear to enjoy their powers but merely hate it when all the little people beg them to save the world when it interrupts their lunch. I mean: How come it took so long for someone to invent Hancock, who’s just a regular, ordinary guy who doesn’t want Society looking to him to round up all the bad guys and smile for the camera while doing it?
This is Hancock: He’s cranky. He drinks too much. He’s not particularly sensitive to the needs of anyone but himself. (This gal doesn’t approve of the celebration of such male stereotypes, of course, though she realizes they have some basis in reality.) He has no understanding of the concept of “public relations” or, in the vernacular, “being nice to people — or at least convincingly pretending to be nice to people — so they won’t hate you.” For which you can’t blame him: no one expects any random dude on the street to know how to talk to the media. And Hancock is just a Regular Guy — a role that, in the hands of Will Smith, has quite potent Regular Guy-ness indeed. Except Hancock just so happens to be able to fly and has superstrength to boot: he’s Superman without the square jaw and the apple-pie appeal, and he really would rather not be bothered with requests to stop bad guys in their tracks.

There are many joys to be found in Hancock, not the least of which is Smith’s (I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness) effortless performance in the title role, which manages to be charming even though Hancock himself is really quite a bastard — you can’t hate him, even though you want to. And then there’s Jason Bateman (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Juno), as the freelance marketing guy who teams up with Hancock in order to improve his image in the public’s eye — there is some truly fine comic acting to be found here in the unlikely intersection of hard-edged Hancock and Bateman’s pleasant, kindhearted Ray Embrey. And there’s some funny stuff, too: like in Hancock’s irritated approach to anger-management treatment.

But by the second half of Hancock I was thinking: Huh? How did they lose the track? Because it turns out that this flick ain’t — as the trailer would have us believe — the flat-out comedy it looks like, and is far closer in tone to all the angst-ridden, hand-wringing, existential superhero tragedies most superhero movies these days have been. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that Hancock appears to defy its own setup, and especially since the movie was, at least in my mind, being promised to us as an antidote to the Very Serious superhero movies we’ve been bombarded with of late. I like the Very Serious superhero movies, but I’d been enjoying the respite from them that the very funny — though also sneakily poignant — first half of Hancock represented.

And I think director Peter Berg — who gave us the highly intriguing terrorism drama The Kingdom last year — and screenwriters Vincent Ngo and X-Files vet Vince Gilligan were enjoying the funny stuff more, too. Because Hancock feels a little undernourished once it turns serious, as if they, the gang behind the camera, couldn’t manage to be as enthusiastic about how their story was ending as they were about how it began. I will confess, too, that during that so-wonderful first half, I found myself wondering how the movie could possibly pay off on what it started off promising: the first half is so good that it’s actually difficult to see how its ending could live up to its beginning. Not that that’s a reason to excuse the filmmakers… except that having a great idea — and Hancock really and truly is a Great Idea — and not knowing quite what to do with it is not all that uncommon.

So here’s the thing: Can you tolerate a Great Idea that doesn’t entirely pull itself off in the execution? Can you forgive a movie for starting off awesome and ending not quite so awesomely? I’ve decided that I can.

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