As the fly honey backup singers crooned in “Summertime,” The Fresh Prince’s 1991 hit, “It’s summer, summer, summertime.”
But can summer movie audiences in 2008 simply “sit back and unwind”? No. Hollywood has to go all angsty on us, subverting the superhero formula and giving us the likes of Hancock, a movie in which the hero is a fuzzy-cheeked alcoholic sexual harasser who is a self-destructive and everything-else-destructive jerk.
Well, at least there’s no gratuitous War on Terror reference in Hancock [style note: We at SFR italicize titles of films, albums and creatively marketed, endless wars on methods of combat]. Even without such politically minded intrusions, it’s difficult to mindlessly inhale popcorn and soda when your superhero movie is trying to make some point about maturation and responsibility.
The major premise behind Hancock—that a hated super-anti-hero could be reformed by a public relations man—is a fun one. It’s no surprise, then, that the first third of Hancock, during which that premise is unveiled, is a really good time.
Set in Los Angeles and starring a top-form Will Smith—once The Prince of Bel-Air and now The Prince of Hollywood—Hancock opens with mayhem. Hancock, who has been sleeping it off on a bus bench, launches up, up and away, whiskey bottle in hand and proceeds to cause $9 million in damage by draping an SUV full of Uzi-wielding gangsters on the spire of a downtown skyscraper. These misadventures get the public—and the cable news commentators who provide them with their opinions (including Nancy Grace, who makes a funny, self-ironic cameo)—worked up into a frothy, anti-Hancock fury.
But life changes for the forlorn and despised Hancock when, after rescuing a big-hearted public relations expert named Ray (Jason Bateman) from an oncoming train, Ray offers to “rebrand” Hancock. Ray’s Leninist plan (i.e. things have to get worse before they can get better) is for Hancock to turn himself in to the police, serve time for all the destruction he’s caused, let crime rates skyrocket and then, when the public and police are clamoring for his return, reintroduce himself to the public, shaved, sober and sporting a slick, skin-tight super-suit. Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), brings Hancock spaghetti and meatballs in jail to help him pass the time.
But, alas, the impediments to fun—as is so often the case in life—come once Hancock tries to sober up. For, like any self-destructive alcoholic, once Hancock kicks the habit and starts living straight, he becomes a much more boring specimen to observe. (That last sentence goes out to all of you once-entertaining recovering alcoholics who are looking for an excuse to go back to the bottle.)
But even as Hancock soporifically sobers, the film, directed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights and, sadly, a new Dune, slated for release in 2010) begins to puke out bits of sloppy back-story mythology and slurred, illogical happenings. Though, to the credit of Berg, the writers and the marketers, it must be said that it also reveals a completely unforeseen twist, one that is in no way revealed by the trailers.
What’s sort of silly (among many things) about Hancock—and this won’t give away anything—is that Ray, the PR man, is its real hero. With all the product placements (Ray-Ban, Sony VIAO computers, Coke), and with market-oriented producers increasingly calling the shots in Hollywood, it’s no wonder that Hancock’s final moral conclusion is that “branding” can save the world. It’s certainly going to save this film—though not from the audience’s
Directed by Peter Berg and Written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan
With Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Jae Head
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14, 92 min., PG-13