July 5, 2008

Hancock (07/05/08)

Lettergrade: C

Hancock has really gotten its ass reamed out by critics. I actually sort of liked the movie myself, but will admit that the critical rimming has not been administered without just cause. The main problem is that the tone is amazingly erratic. The picture starts as something of a send-up of today's seemingly endless stream of comic-book flicks with PR guy Jason Bateman helping an unlikable, alcoholic superhero (Will Smith, playing the Superman-like title character) win affection from the irate people of Los Angeles. About mid-way through, once Hancock's initial problem has been somewhat remedied, the film moves completely away from any attempt at comedy by introducing some key twists, a bit of nifty superhero mythology of its own, and of course, the necessary elements for an action climax. I enjoyed both "parts" of the movie for different reasons (although the latter part makes for a more worthwhile experience than the first), but I don't think the two make for a terribly happy marriage overall.

The first section of the film would be utterly repugnant if anyone less naturally charismatic than Smith had been in the role. The humor depends on the audience getting a kick from seeing a traditionally iconic, universally loved figure get all sloppy drunk and abusive. While this was used to great effect in Bad Santa, the Bobcat Goldthwait classic Shakes The Clown, and the segment of Superman III where Superman, having been exposed to faulty, man-made kryptonite, acts like a super-dick to everyone, it is merely "functionally entertaining" here. Which is to say not bad but not especially noteworthy either.

There were rumors abound about how the film had been reshot, recut and rescored pretty much right up to point where Columbia Pictures had to release it, and many of them centered around how dark that leading "Superman III" segment should be. About 20 minutes in, for example, a warrant is issued for Hancock's arrest, and Bateman convinces him that it would be good for his public image to accept the consequences of his actions and do time in the slammer. The film is cut to make it look like the warrant was issued due to some property he destroyed earlier, but the film as originally shot apparently had Hancock getting busted after banging an underage girl he picked up in a bar!

Jailbait aside (and who among us hasn't been there?), when the film buckles down and ventures into more familiar superhero territory, there is a neat character arc that deals with Hancock starting to understand where he came from and what his purpose should be. This aspect of the picture appealed to me in the same way that M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable did, and the whole last part of the film and its conclusion are actually pretty cool and engaging.

The movie's crime is not that it tries to introduce satire and parody into an otherwise perfectly acceptable idea for a superhero movie, but that it does it so awkwardly. Bateman's character, for example, wants to change the world for the better and is frustrated that he cannot do so. He works to improve Hancock's public image because he sees in him great potential to do what he cannot. Nevertheless, this thematic point is played largely for its sit-com style absurdity in the first part of the movie, and then pretty much disappears during the second (along with Bateman himself, oddly), before popping back up at the end and making an attempt at being somewhat meaningful.

At the end, Hancock turns out to be a fairly decent movie, but the path it travels to get from the first scene to the last is winding and strange. I guess if nothing else, it's an example of how a highly problematic movie can get reworked into oblivion and not wind up a complete disaster.

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