Hancock: High Concept Film Starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron

One of Will Smith’s weakest movies in a long time, Hancock is a misguided effort, a hodgepodge of a movie that wants to play it both ways, be a magical superhero story like “Superman,” and yet ground the yarn in a recognizably realistic context, with characters that are human-size with human emotions.

Many gifted people are behind the picture, including Michael Mann (“The Insider”), James Lassiter (who produced Will Smith’s vehicle “I Am Legend), and Jonathan Mostow (“Breakdown,” Terminator 3″) as producers. Question is: Did anyone pay attention? Did anyone read the final screenplay carefully?

The project has had a long, troubled history. At one point, it was going to be directed by Mostow, then by Italian Gabriele Mucchino (who directed Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness”), which explains why they get acknowledged as behind-the-camera forces. Also credited with a producer credit is Akiva Goldsman, a writer-producer with an uneven track record.

It is no wonder, then, that with so many cooks, each pushing the high-concept picture in a different direction, the movie lacks narrative coherence and distinct identity as a darkly humorous comedy. (The premise leads to you to believe that you are about to see a smart lack comedy, but after one act, the saga changes into something else).

Usually projecting confidence and bravado, Smith looks uncomfortable, both as a superhero and as a normal person. Currently considered to be the industry’s most bankable star, Will Smith is credited as star and producer, which means that he must have seen something in this project that we don’t. Hancock may serve as a test for the real power of Smith at the box-office: If he can sell this movie to the mass, global audience, then he can sell any movie and truly earn his status as Hollywood’s most forceful star.

What went wrong? Everything: from thematic conception to technical execution. As scripted by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, “Hancock” is a high-concept picture par excellence, a potentially witty black comedy that unfortunately revolves around one central idea and is cast with a minimal ensemble (basically a three-handler feature). The Vietnamese born Ngo is a tyro (a grad of UCLA), but Gilligan is more experienced, having scripted the failed comedy “Wilder Napalm” (with Debra Winger) and “Home Fries,” starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. Having seen some of the “X-Files” episodes he had scripted, and his current project, AMC’s TV series “Breaking Bad,” it’s likely that he’s the one who imbued the screenplay with satirical tone, particularly in the early chapters.

The movie is meant to expand the boundaries of the genre by stressing human emotion, but in actuality, it just exposes the weaknesses and limitations of the genre when it is expanded and stretched too much. As other failed movies have shown, it’s not easy to tell a superhero flick in a straightforward manner and at the same time spoof and run sardonic commentary on its foundations.

Unlike the recent “Iron Man” or “The Incredible Hulk,” “Hancock” is not an “origin story,” No, the filmmakers have decided not to focus on how Hancock got his extraordinary powers, or chose to use them. Instead, they conceive of Hancock as a universal, mythic figure, in the midst of his career, who hates his “job,” and wants out.

Far from being a blessing, Hancock’s superpowers have given him an attitude that cuts him off from the very public that should form his most admiring fans. He’s called an “asshole” at least three times by various people on the street who identify him.

As if to justify the movie’s PG-13 rating, in the first reel, Hancock, covering his face with a hat and big dark glasses, uses foul language and is almost always drunk. Booze is a constant. Even when he performs his unusually acrobatic acts, he makes sure to have a bottle of whiskey. In other words, Hancock is a man who goes through menopause, a severe mid-life crisis. Can he be redeemed

Hancock is supposed to be an irreverent superhero, an exceptional character that breaks the mold. Problem is, the narrative has no internal logic and thus when it’s convenient, he is a superman, and when it’s not convenient, he’s human. The saga constructs its own rules as it goes along, and without any guidance, everything and anything is permitted.
“Hancock” may be one of the most incoherent works this summer, with a tone and look that change radically from one scene to the next. The 90-minute-picture is trying to be everything, funny and irreverent, sexy and romantic, thrilling and heartbreaking, resulting in a muddled work.

When the story begins, Hancock is in a totally isolated position, physically as well as mentally: He’s either sleeping on a bench and/or causing wreckage. Not unaware, he quickly realizes that in order to survive he needs to be a member of a group, interact with other people.

Things begin to change when Hancock meets Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a decent husband and father, a bleeding-heart public relations executive, who defies the stereotype of his profession. Here is an image control expert who is not aggressive and competitive. When Hancock saves his life, Ray wants to reciprocate, pay him back by teaching the stranger how to conduct himself more appropriately. A yuppie that is proud of his identity and lifestyle, Ray wants Hancock to clean up his image, which is fine. But, typically of the whole movie, Ray wants more than just image chance, he also wants to teach Hancock how to be a better superhero.

Ditto for Ray’s wife Mary (played by Charlize Theron), who has a double identity, half of which is unknown to her husband. There’s tension between Hancock and Mary from their first meeting, when she serves spaghetti and meatballs, which he devours with gusto (and whole bottles of whisky, which he carries with him to the bathroom). In sort of a nonsensical mumbo-jumbo way, the text explains how Hancock and Mary had met in a previous life. (See Spoiler Alert).

The film’s second half conducts a hocus-pocus, circus-like act, turning into a romantic triangle, with Mary as the femme fatale, flirting while seeing both the good and bad sides of each man. Did I mention that there’s also a boy, who predictably immediately takes to liking Hancock

Trying to be all things to all people, the movie falls flat on its face, and the happy ending is so fake and contrived that it negates the few good elements that preceded it.

It still baffles me how a talented actor and producer like Will Smith got swayed into this ill-conceived project that is poorly directed by Peter Berg, who here repeats some of the devices he had used in his former picture, “The Kingdom,” such as mega close-ups of the actors, fast cutting and pacing.

The movie also suffers from uneven visual and sound effects. At first, you are impressed with the extraordinary ability of Hancock to lift cars with one hand, lift off the ground in one sharp leap and fly faster than Superman or Batman, and save lives by causing wreckage, which usually takes form in spewing mounds of concrete. “Hancock” is yet another New York-set movie that takes pleasure in demolishing high-rise buildings and whole streets.

The handsome and gifted Smith holds the entire picture on his robust shoulders–literally. But he deserves better movie vehicles, with sharper scenarios than this. There’s an alarming note in Smith’s recent pictures, which are almost like one-man shows, with no or few secondary characters around him, which limits his acting. In “Pursuit of Happyness,” he had a young boy (actually his real son) as the only partner. In the sci-fi “I Am Legend,” he was by himself for a whole hour (O.K., he had a dog). In the new film, he also moves and acts alone, with only few interactional scenes with Ray and Mary.

Spoiler Alert

It turns out that Hancock and Mary, who secretly shares his own powers, had met decades ago, and were lovers (perhaps even married at one point). Rather typically of the muddled scenario, their relationship takes illogical turn, and they themselves refer to each other as husband and wife, brother and sister, kindred souls who can’t be together under the same roof.

Cast

John Hancock – Will Smith
Mary – Charlize Theron
Ray Embrey – Jason Bateman
Red – Eddie Marsan
Jeremy – Johnny Galecki
Mike – Thomas Lennon
Aaron – Jae Head

Credits

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Blue Light/Weed Road Pictures/Overbrook Entertainment production.
Produced by Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann, Will Smith, James Lassiter.
Executive producers, Ian Bryce, Jonathan Mostow, Richard Saperstein.
Co-producer, Allegra Clegg.
Directed by Peter Berg.
Screenplay, Vy Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan.
Camera, Tobias Schliessler.
Editors, Paul Rubell, Colby Parker Jr.
Music, John Powell; music supervisor, George Drakoulias.
Production designer, Neil Spisak.
Art directors, William Hawkins, Dawn Swiderski.
Set designers, Jeff Markwith, Patte Strong-Lord, Billy Hunter.
Set decorator, Rosemary Brandenburg.
Costume designer, Louise Mingenbach.
Sound, David MacMillan; supervising sound editor, Gregory King; sound designer, Yann Delpuech.
Visual effects designer, John Dykstra.
Special effects supervisor, John Frazier.
Special visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Stunt coordinators, Simon Crane, Wade Eastwood.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 91 Minutes