BOOKS AND ARTS JULY 1, 2008
It briefly looked as though the 4th of July might be up for grabs again. For about a decade, this week on the cinematic calendar had been officially unofficially reserved for Will Smith, whose 1996 Independence Day (I know, it wasn't really his, but it was reimagined to have been after the fact), 1997 Men in Black, 1999 Wild Wild West (yes, even that one), and 2002 Men in Black 2 dominated the box office on America's birthday. But MiB2 was a good while ago, and Smith had lately seemed to set his sights higher still, opening The Pursuit of Happyness and I Am Legend over the last two holiday seasons.
Yet a dozen years after Independence Day, Smith has once again staked a claim to Independence Day, with the superhero subversion Hancock. And, like any good self-fulfilling prophecy, it will likely reign supreme at the box office because everyone has already assumed it would: Summer’s other blockbusters have all deferentially ceded the field, so Hancock will go head-to-head against only a few limited releases and a kids-oriented film, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, which just happens to star Smith's seven-year-old daughter, Willow, whom we can safely assume has been promised a lifetime of spinach if she doesn't take a dive for Daddy.
Which is a shame because, Smith's indisputable talents notwithstanding, Hancock is an utter mess. Its premise is dark, but not unpromising: Smith’s John Hancock (yes, there’s a story behind the name) is an L.A.–area superhero with the typical package of abilities--flight, super-strength, invulnerability--who also happens to be a surly layabout and an alcoholic. When first we meet him, he’s passed out on a public bench, and it falls upon a grammar-schooler to rouse him to a crime that needs fighting. (“What do you want, a cookie?” Hancock grouchily replies.) In the course of apprehending the bad guys, though, Hancock does more damage to city infrastructure--highways, road signs, police cars, etc.--than the criminals would have managed in five lifetimes. Little wonder that Hancock is not the most popular airborne savior in the City of Angels.
Luckily, a subsequent rescue, despite its characteristically high economic toll, introduces Hancock to Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a do-gooding P.R. guy (the movie evidently assumes that if you’ll believe a man can fly ... ) who offers to help Hancock clean up his public image. Said cleaning up involves some fairly serious criminal charges, and--perhaps because he lets Ray represent him rather than, you know, a lawyer--Hancock winds up doing his public penance in prison. On the way to the jailhouse, we’re also introduced to Ray’s concerned wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), who initially appears to be another Gwyneth Paltrow–in–Iron Man indicator of the dearth of major roles for actresses during summer-movie season, but turns out to be something else entirely.
A few problems are evident from the start. The direction (by Peter Berg, who did a rather good job of elevating last year’s The Kingdom above its jingoistic source material) is negligent in the extreme: The action sequences are sloppily choreographed, the soundtrack is intrusive, and the performances, even by Mr.-supremely-comfortable-in-my-own-skin Smith, are all oddly tentative. On top of that, the dialogue is flat and the effects are second-rate at best. But what is most obviously out of whack is the pacing, which is remarkably choppy and rushed. Barely a half-hour into the movie, it seems that it’s entered its redemptive home stretch.
And indeed, it has. The great surprise that Hancock offers--I hesitate to call it a “twist,” because that makes it sound like a good thing--is that it is not merely a subversion of the superhero genre, but two subversions, stitched together with the same laziness evident elsewhere in the film. By its midway point, Hancock hasn’t merely sobered up, the movie has all but forgotten that he was a drunk in the first place and has wandered into another plot--featuring a fellow super, a tragic backstory, a love triangle, etc.--only loosely related to the first.
The glass-half-full approach to the film, I suppose, would be to imagine that it’s two for the price of one: Hancock and Hancock 2: The Hidden Hero--and you don’t even have to wait two years for the sequel. I’m afraid, however, that I subscribe to the glass-half-empty view: This is a lurching, misbegotten wreck of a movie that has little idea of where it’s going and less of how to get there. Is it a comedy? (The jailhouse scene in which Hancock inserts one thug’s head into another’s posterior, scored to the bum-bum-Ba-dum theme from “Sanford and Son,” offers strong evidence.) A heavy melodrama? (The bleak, violent climax, which among other amusements features the devastated face of a small boy who believes he’s lost everything, would seem to suggest so.) A movie about love and destiny denied? Or a movie about love and destiny fulfilled? Hancock is all these things, and not in a good way. By the end there are enough loose threads hanging around--narrative, moral, emotional--to knit at least two or three other movies.
Hancock is hardly the worst movie of the summer season. (That would probably be this or this.) But it is in some ways the most frustrating: a clumsy, half-hearted mishmash dropped carelessly into the holiday weekend with the clear assumption that Big Willie’s superpowers will be enough to catch it and hold it aloft. I (like every moviegoer on Earth, if box office numbers are to be believed) consider myself a fan of Will Smith. But Hancock, even more than its protagonist, has deep-seated problems, and anyone who gives it money is only enabling its misbehavior.