By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
I think it was Henry Miller who recommended we judge him solely by his works, and not his personal life. That way, he suggested, there’d be less chance of us being disappointed. But that failing, the author of “Tropic of Cancer” said he couldn’t care less. Which is essentially how superhero Hancock (Will Smith) feels about things.
Blistering recklessly through the skies, causing untold destruction via his unorthodox but nonetheless successful, lifesaving missions, Hancock is all devil-may-care. Or so it seems. He is merely abided…an indisputable good, but at a price. When he rescues Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from the path of a rushing train, it costs the railroad millions.
Too bad if the unappreciative louts don’t love him, figures the title superhero in “Hancock,” a lopsided load of metaphors that starts off funny, turns serious, and then gets lost in a raft of pretentiousness. While concerned with image expert Embrey’s mission to earn redemption for his savior, no such attempt is undertaken for the movie.
The getting to know you part has its whimsy. Taking no guff, the troubled Hancock carelessly tosses a mouthy adolescent into the upper atmosphere, executing a last second catch upon his return. It’s OK. He’s the brat who’s been bullying Aaron Embrey (Jae Head), the film’s perfunctory, cute little kid who, like his dad, sees the good in Hancock.
Rounding out the dramatis personae is Charlize Theron as Ray’s wife Mary. Curiously, the pretty gal has reservations about hubby’s campaign to improve Hancock’s reputation. You won’t get the skinny about that here, but take said segue two or three stops down the screenplay and ultimately you’ll find yourself at the crux of the oddly envisioned plot.
It’s sort of like what occasionally occurs in professional wrestling. Out of the blue, the good guy springs it on us that he is now a villain. Only here, the lighthearted mask of comedy, unexpectedly exhibiting the theatrical equivalent of multiple personality, suddenly declares its impetus is dramatic.
It is doubtful director Peter Berg could have better melded the dual natures of Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan’s script without a major rewrite. Hence, it is testament to Mr. Smith’s thespic ability and charisma that, despite being dumped down incongruity lane, we maintain our suspension of disbelief and remain dedicated to Hancock’s salvation.
He’s quite an angry curmudgeon. And again, later for the heavily baroque causes. In the meantime you can’t help but smirkingly acknowledge the albeit unrealized potential of a movie superhero who not only doesn’t fit the mold, but also entertainingly rails against it. Yet none of his radical allure would be possible if we weren’t sure he was true blue.
Sort of a twelve-step program for recovering, bad-mannered superheroes, Ray insists Hancock begins his atonement by volunteering to do a jail term. Nothing too lengthy, mind you. The usual prison clichés are trotted out. However, this soon proves a catch 22. For with the cat away, the rats get to play out their dirty schemes without compunction.
A call from a desperate police chief and Hancock’s subsequent swing into action appears to herald a new era for the superhero. A bit of group therapy back in the slammer and further counseling from PR wiz Ray—things like remembering to tell the cops they’re doing a good job—and it appears that he’s on the road to amelioration.
But the moment of optimism is short-lived. Two new bugaboos arrive to assure that there is no void of sturm und drang for Hancock who, by this time, has submitted to wearing a spiffy costume Ray had designed for him. Trouble #1 is the emergence of evildoer Red (Eddie Marsan) as a bona fide archenemy. Tsuris #2 is more complex.
Suffice it to note Mary Embrey knows more about Hancock than he knows about himself. Suffering from a super case of amnesia, he has no idea from whence he came and why he is so prodigiously empowered. The only clue to his past, kept in a metal tin at his trailer/fortress on a mountain, is two tickets to Karloff’s “Frankenstein” (1931) .
Gosh, he doesn’t look that old. Precisely. And all that attends that observation is ultimately, slowly explained…much too slowly. Considering the volumes of exciting lore detailing the origins of superheroes, this is a drab, pseudo-dark, rather uninteresting account. By this juncture, the film has officially and irretrievably sunk into maudlinness.
It paltrily tries to say something about contradictory facets of the life experience being opposite sides of the same coin. But while the lessons prove banal to anyone old enough to witness its PG-13 sentiments, the irony is that “Hancock” plays like two halves of two different movies. All of which suggests “Halfcocked” might have been a more apt title.
“Hancock,” rated PG-13, is a Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures release directed by Peter Berg and stars Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman. Running time: 92 minutes
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