Wednesday, July 02, 2008

"Hancock" -- * *

Like most misfires of this summer movie season, Peter Berg's "Hancock" begins with a great idea. Imagine if Superman or Spider-Man resented the fact that they were just expected to be super all the time, use their powers for good and go around saving people. What if they hated humanity, themselves most of all, and preferred to spend their days laying around getting super drunk. Will Smith's superhero movie smartly uses this concept as its jumping off point, and when "Hancock" is being the film it promises to be (i.e.: its first half hour), it works, and has audiences in the palm of its hand. From that point on though, it gets progressively worse, suffering from abrupt tonal shifts, a crippling aimlessness, alternating between head-hurting exposition, adolescent-targeting slapstick and jarring sentimentality. It's rare that I think a movie would've been better had it played it safer, but had "Hancock" stayed within its unique premise, it could've been something special. As it stands, it ends up just being a handful of numerous vaguely interesting ideas swimming around in a mess of a movie that never figures out what to do with them.

The movie opens with a high-speed, gun-equipped freeway chase being dealt with by police. Cut to our "hero" Hancock (Smith) asleep on a bench. Alerted to the situation by a little kid who calls him an "asshole," Hancock -- drunk in the middle of the day -- grudgingly launches off and flies to the scene of the crime, killing some seagulls and almost knocking out a plane in the process. At the end of the day, he takes out the bad guys (they make the mistake of shooting his liquor bottle), but only after causing $9 million in damage, continuing his public perception of being an asshole. He doesn't give a shit what people think, and certainly doesn't care about being nice; he tells an old lady who looks his way in a bar, "I will break my foot off in your ass, woman." But he's just misunderstood, you see. He has a cloudy past that he occasionally gets misty over; something to do with two ticket stubs for "Frankenstein" he keeps hidden away. One day, when he saves the life of nice guy publicist Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), dubbed "The Bono of PR," Embrey offers to, in return, help Hancock clean up his imagine. Ray's bitchy wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who dislikes Hancock for some reason, thinks he's wasting his time, but Hancock soon falls in line, even reluctantly agreeing to willingly go to jail when a warrant is issued for his arrest (and he's condemned by Nancy Grace). He sits in jail for a bit, till the chief of police needs him, and then... well, then the movie kind of rambles around a bunch. The key here would have been to stretch out these first 45 minutes to a feature length running time. Nothing really significant happens. We get a really non-threatening bad guy who is in a total of three scenes. We get a twist. Then the movie turns into a drama. Then it ends, and everyone walks out scratching their heads, wondering what happened to that movie they started watching.

The opening 30 minutes do a great job giving us an idea of seemingly what kind of movie this is going to be and who Hancock is. It shows our protagonist in action, saving people, pissing people off, being rude, meeting Ray and setting the story in motion. It's filled with effective action (there's even more train destruction than the third act of "Wanted") and is consistently funny. For a PG-13 family-targeting Will Smith superhero movie opening on July 4th weekend, it's surprisingly, refreshingly not afraid to be naughty, using its one "fuck" in the first few minutes in a particularly hilarious, rude one-liner. There are moments that are funny in and of themselves, but they also establish what a jerk Hancock is (in response to a woman's complaint, "I can smell the alcohol on your breath," he responds "Cuz I've been drinkin', bitch!"). The plot starts moving fairly quickly, as Hancock's already in jail and being trained to say "good job" to the law enforcement officials he shows up to help by the half-hour mark. This first act fulfills on the promise of the film's concept, cast and filmmmaker, and had me thinking it was on track to be a well-made, crowd-pleasing, clever, original movie. Sure, it could accurately be summed up by "Will Smith curses and destroys stuff" but it's a lot of fun, and lets us know right away that this is going to be a more innovative and edgy summer blockbuster than most.

Around minute 30 (once Hancock is in jail), the comedy starts to get alternately more sitcom-like and significantly dumber. I found it kind of distractingly implausible that people would keep taunting and picking fights with someone they know has superpowers, but hey, the studio needed a 'Will Smith beats up people funny' moment.Things were fairly broad from the outset, but once we have our hero following through on his promise to shove one convict's head up another's ass, we've officially entered Mike Myers/Adam Sandler territory, and it just doesn't fit with what's come before it; to top it off, the "Sanford and Son" theme song inexplicably kicks in (perhaps to underline how shuck-and-jive pandering the scene is). Still, while I hated that specific sequence, the way my audience responded, you'd have thought Jesus Christ and Tyler Perry had collaborated and told them the funniest joke in the world. So, at the 60-minute mark or so, while the quality-level had come down a bit, I thought "Hancock" would be more than just a hit, but a huge blockbuster and have killer word-of-mouth. It may have been compromised, but it was still for all intents and purposes, a comedy. But while this middle portion burns up only some of its good will, the third act takes care of the rest of it.

At about this two-thirds mark, you start to realize, "Hey, nothing's really happened, and there hasn't been any real conflict." At this point the movie completely goes off the rails, shoe-horning in a half-assed villain, focusing almost entirely on Hancock's convoluted origin and mythology of "his kind," and becoming this really odd, sentimental drama. In theory, I'm okay with shifts in tone if they work for the movie, or are the result of some sort of progression. I don't need my movies to be tidy and fit neatly into a box, but a tonal shift could've been pulled off without feeling so strained, so abrupt, so flat, so what-the-fuck. The scenes that flounder here would be bad in any context, not just in contrast to what comes before them. Hancock's backstory/mythology/origin is extremely confusing, vague and silly all at once, and things start to go seriously awry during an out-of-place, special effects heavy, property-destroying fight between two characters. Without giving too much away, the final portion shares much in common with the third act of "Superman Returns" (i.e.: Superman in hospital bed) and do you remember that being a part of the movie people were happy with? It's all very stark and serious and laughably sentimental, leading into a jaw-droppingly happy ending that'll have most people wondering "How did we get here?" Walking out of the theater, I momentarily had the mindset that I had hated the movie, until I remembered how much I was enjoying it a mere hour ago.

There's a reason Smith is the biggest star in America right now, and that's because he seemingly respects his audience enough to never phone it in, and makes movies where he gets to radiate charisma, likability and skills. Despite him playing "unlikable," he's charming even as an asshole, and makes this hodgepodge work as well as it does (which has me shuddering to think how it would fare without him). He manages to be convincing both as a superhero and as a drunk who takes a whiskey bottle to the bathroom, and regardless of how the movie's received by the public, his Hollywood star cred shouldn't take any sort of hit from it. As for the other leads, "Arrested Development" geeks like myself will be giggling throughout, as "Hancock" gives us the reunion of Michael Bluth (Bateman) and retarded Rita (Theron). It's a terrific showcase for Bateman, giving him the opportunity to do his effortlessly funny thing (he tells Hancock, "It's not a crime to be an asshole, but it's very counter-productive") and weirdly, he has the most fleshed-out character. He does some great work here, and should prove to the Hollywood powers that be that he can anchor his own movie again. Theron's fine, but she's fairly bland here. For a special-effects-heavy, brainless piece of entertainment, she doesn't seem to be enjoying herself at any point. However, until she slathers on some hooker-looking makeup for the last third, I think this is the best she's ever looked in a movie.

Berg's been a director I've always liked a whole lot, and the concept here, at the outset, seems to mesh well with his former films, while allowing him to work on a much grander scale (a career trajectory not unlike Jon Favreau). From his underrated poisonous gem "Very Bad Things" to the best sports film of at least the last ten years, "Friday Night Lights" to last year's "The Kingdom," Berg's shown narrative and stylistic growth as a filmmaker each time out, and I hoped "Hancock" would continue the pattern. But while Berg does some interesting things here, his approach seems to clash with some of the content on display here, and overall (especially the stuff that seems to be the result of studio-mandated re-writes, re-shoots, etc.), it seems to go against his core impulses as a filmmaker -- notably, that smiley-face ending. He infuses the film with his Mann-protege director style, including his trademark "shakey cam," which occasionally boldly and effectively gives the movie an aesthetic superhero films normally wouldn't dare brandish, but at other times, verges on unnecessary and annoying (e.g.: randomly drawing attention to itself during a dinner table scene).

There's a story turn that bears heavily on the third act, which the ads have gone out of their way to avoid (almost no footage from the last half hour has made its way into the promotional materials), yet everyone involved with the movie has been making sure to hint at whenever they make a television appearance. It's being held as a "twist" and I won't reveal the nature, but I found it to be so incredibly telegraphed that it should barely count as such. On top of you knowing that an Oscar-winning actress of Charlize Theron's stature would never take a simple housewife role where she just stands in the background the whole movie, she gives Hancock a knowing look in literally every scene she shares with him that clearly says, "We have some sort of past history that will come into play at the two-thirds mark." When, sure enough, it does come into play, it's tough to greet it with any sort of surprise. In this kind of movie, it didn't matter to me that the twist is kind of silly -- it's fine -- but the movie employs it in perhaps the most uninteresting way possible.

I would recommend studio executives and filmmakers go see "Hancock" to see the ultimate example of why staking a claim on a release date before a movie's even been shot has potential to destroy that movie. Based on the long-gestating, supposedly brilliant screenplay "Tonight, He Comes," the script here by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (writer of the truly awful "Home Fries") was rushed into production once Will Smith became attached, and I'm convinced the committed-to release date of July 2nd, 2008 is almost entirely the cause of the mess we ended up with. This thing was reportedly re-written and re-written and shot and re-shot a dozen times over (supposedly, a reshoot of the ending took place just a few weeks ago), and it shows all over the screen. The movie never finds its footing in what it wants to be, changing its intentions from scene-to-scene. It's blatantly evident that it's been edited to death (a "super ejaculate" sequence much-discussed in numerous test screening reviews is nowhere to be found), with subplots and backstories missing entire chunks, and the whole affair running a meager 85 minutes. There were varied reports of different versions/scenes being tested and shot a handful of times over the last couple months, and that sort of haphazard, rushed re-tooling is just not the way to get a decent finished product.

It's a fascinating, and dispiriting, experience to watch a movie self-destruct before your eyes, but that's exactly what happens here. "Hancock" is ambitious and original enough to stand out in a summer full of sequels and franchises, and manages to never be boring; however, by the last third, you're watching it through your fingers. No matter how great your love for Will Smith, it's tough to ignore how intensely the air seeps out of the movie by the time the credits roll. Not that it should matter much; Smith is such a huge, unstoppable star, that no matter what reception it receives, "Hancock" is virtually guaranteed at least a $200 million gross. It'll have a huge opening weekend for sure, but it'll be interesting to see how it holds up in the following weeks. Who knows, I might be an idiot -- my friends at the screening all seemed mildly positive, and the audience clapped at the end -- but I think the movie's going to lose people as it goes on, or at least, diminish their enthusiasm; it tries to be all things to all people, but as a result, might have the opposite effect. Personally, I'm curious to see the version that Smith and Berg signed on to make, but sadly, we'll never have that opportunity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Truthfully, I was shocked at how much money I am Legend made -- even though I thought it was one of the most boring movies of the year. Hancock is not so terrible.

12:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

see, these are the types of movies that should be remade...movies that botched it the first time out, but could have been something special...15 or so years from now, remake hancock as it was supposed to be made, original script intact...stop remaking movies that were good the first time around!

2:36 AM  
Anonymous patrick said...

Hancock looks like interesting spin on the latest superhero movie craze... if nothing else at least Will Smith tends to be pretty funny

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno- I think if it would have stayed like the first 30 min it would have been a terrible Will Smith-o-fied one liner. There are only so many times that the same bad hero joke would continue to be funny. I think that once the husband & wife love/hate thing came in the movie transcends the comic book hero style ( though I am a sucker for all comic book hero movies-love them all) and the insanity of loving someone so much that they know how to drive you completely crazy is pretty relatable. kay g'nite & thanks for the review I don't like Renee Zellweger ... I also am not a huge fan of the Zel-weg...

2:46 AM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

Whhhhhattt? Will Smith saves the world in a movie?

9:52 PM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

Whhhhhattt? Will Smith saves the world in a movie?

9:52 PM  

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