When Surly Met Sappy

The superhero parody 'Hancock' gets bogged down by the very formulas it seeks to skewer

B-

July 02, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

Hancock , the redemption tale of a feckless Los Angeles superhero, is named, in a roundabout way, for John Hancock, the patriot with the indelible signature. But it might as well have been named for the insurance company.

The first half is diverting and inventive. But the filmmakers use the second half as a box-office insurance policy. They fill it with the conventional super-heroics and heartbreak that they spend the first 45 minutes gleefully deconstructing.

Hancock swings into action in ragged street clothes: Tthe only "costume" he wears is a wool watch cap with an eagle stitched into the front of it. Mostly he sports 10 different kinds of grimaces as he demonstrates super-strength, the power of flight and an ultra-blase attitude to any piece of machinery or property that gets in his way.

Happily, Will Smith is just as creative and persuasive as a homeless superman as he was playing the homeless businessman in The Pursuit of Happyness. He invests Hancock with a unique depressed gusto. Alcoholic, surly and anti-social anyway, he's sick of normal humans criticizing his methods (or lack of them). Smith catalyzes such instant empathy with moviegoers that we share his hurt feelings though we understand the complaints about Hancock's collateral damage.

The movie takes flight when Hancock makes nice with humanity under the guidance of an idealistic public-relations man, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Hancock and Embrey share the comic-book equivalent of a "meet-cute": Bateman, trapped in his car, is about to be crushed by an oncoming train. Smith and Bateman are cute together - cute in the old street sense of clever, sharp or shrewd. They trigger some theater-shaking belly laughs.

Yet once that story line runs its course, the filmmakers fill the movie with the combination of unearned sentiment and cheap suspense that has been the artistic bane of many a smash, including Spielberg's War of the Worlds. This blend may not work commercially for Hancock; viewers can tell when the filmmakers' hearts aren't in it.

Their fleet pacing and irreverence give way to bathetic scene-making, complete with rain, tears and endless bouts of self-sacrifice. The filmmakers sacrifice the goodwill of audiences who were hoping for something completely different.

Several actors have become superstars by playing superheroes; Smith is one of the few who's chosen to play a superhero when already at his peak. The results are startling. As Hancock, Smith can play big without worrying about going over the top. There is no top to this character.

He's the most genuine, comic book-like element in the movie. Smith imbues Hancock's mildest grumble with the impact of a declaration spelled out in capital letters with multiple exclamation points. He makes Hancock's random notions as clear as the insides of a thought balloon. In short, he conjures super-qualities we've rarely experienced before, including super-misanthropy and super-crudity - and both at the same time, in one prison gag that is super-lowdown.

Bateman's Embrey becomes an ideal foil for Hancock's high-octane negativity. The filmmakers reserve their gentlest satire for his character, and Bateman fills him out with a subtle geniality. Embrey may be a public-relations man, but he wants to save the world.

Bateman breathes an engaging wistfulness into Embrey's quixotic crusades. He suggests that Embrey's willing-to-please personality as a born P.R. man fights his underlying anger to a draw. He's uproarious when he semi-successfully handles Hancock, mollifying him and reprimanding him in quick, easy turns. And he's effortlessly touching as the devoted, thankful husband of a strapping beauty, Mary (Charlize Theron), who took pity on him in a supermarket when he was a sad-eyed widower shopping for his young son.

The director, Peter Berg, boasts the rare ability to unite a quick-cutting, roving-camera visual style with ensemble performances that are off-the-cuff expressive and realistically rough-edged. (He's done amazing work as the creator of the TV series Friday Night Lights.) I thought he successfully adapted his technique to the big screen with last fall's The Kingdom, but Hancock displays its primary weakness - when Berg must register a strange or ambiguous emotion, one that's difficult to catch on the fly, his filmmaking screeches to a halt.

It's great to see Theron pull herself to her full, glorious height and act with flashing-eyed brio. But Theron signals with a floodlight that Mary has some private love or hate for Hancock. And Berg brings his camera to a sudden, jarring standstill; it's as if he wants the slowest member of the audience to know something's going on.

The film's fatal narrative turnaround hinges on Mary - and if Theron can't pull it off, nobody could.

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