Review: Hancock isn't Very Good But You'll Probably Dig It Anyway

They say that the best storytellers make difficult choices. I think that's what they say, anyhow -- I'm vaguely recollecting it from the hit film Wonder Boys. The moral of that story was that you had to take some risks to create anything worthwhile; you couldn't just throw a bunch of elements into a stew and hope for the best. Which leads me to Hancock. Unfortunately, that's all the film is. Element stew.

Now then, those elements are kind of fun. Superhero! Drunken anti-hero! Jason Bateman! Charlize Theron! I can see why this received a hefty production budget and the cherry July 4th placement, and that's even before I mention Will Smith and Peter Berg, two men who have a lot of solid film credits under their belts. Last year's The Kingdom (also directed by Peter Berg) was crazily under-appreciated, and Will Smith doesn't make anything but hits. He's the last bankable star there is. Sadly, that doesn't excuse the overall feeling of "brilliant concept, shoddy execution" present throughout Hancock.

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The concept? Will Smith is John Hancock (I feel like I should say "THIS SUMMER" in the movie-trailer-guy voice to complete the effect). He's a superhero in the sense that he can fly, has incredible strength, and is immune to bullets and fire. But he's also got some social issues. He likes the booze. He's rude to kids. Oftentimes he'll destroy too many things en route to "saving" people. These are interesting issues and they're handled well in the opening minutes of Hancock. Enter Jason Bateman as Hancock's PR guy and Charlize Theron as Bateman's wife.

There are three issues that derail Hancock's chances of being a great film. Let's go over them in list mode.

Charlize Theron and the lingering camera:

You know how sometimes filmmakers like to "foreshadow"? They'll hold a glance a beat too long or focus in on a look or a grimace so that you think to yourself, "Hmm, something is not quite right here." This is done so that the idiots in the audience can say "It's a trap!!" or "I don't trust him!" That's fine. Most movies with twists and turns do this sort of thing and I rarely hold it against them. What I do hold against a film is beating me over the head with it and leaving me bloody. I'd say five minutes of Hancock involve holding the shot too long so that the audience doesn't get "lost." It's a film made for 4th graders. Again, that's cool, but you don't get to enter the pantheon of films that do it the right way with that sort of behavior.

I'll suspend disbelief, but not all logic:

Hancock can fly and stop bullets. Fair enough. We're along for the ride. No worries. But let me ask you a hypothetical -- and your answer to this question will determine our friendship. Let's say a guy, we'll call him "W. Smith," is a superhero. This W. Smith guy throws you in jail with his super strength because he catches you in the act of robbing, or (ham) burgling, or general thuggery. With me so far? Great. Let's then say that while you're serving your time in prison you hear the news that this Smith fellow will be joining you. Keep in mind he can fly and has super strength. Now then, with all these facts at your disposal, when you see him in the prison lunchroom do you step to him? Do you? Because if you do, you don't conform to any logic whatsoever. You're an idiot. If you pick a fight with a person who can pick up cars then you deserve only ridicule. However, this is the journey Hancock takes us on quite often. It's done for a cheap laugh and it's ridiculous. We should all be smarter than this scenario and we shouldn't encourage artists to make this sort of decision.

Phoning it in, not making choices:

I alluded to this one back in my intro paragraph but it deserves mention again. Everything is vanilla here. Hancock is never a bad enough guy to set up a real conflict. Okay, he likes to drink. Okay, he's occasionally rude. As an audience member, all of that is monumentally overshadowed by the effect of "Hey, he can fly!" The movie has no low point and so it can't have a high point. There isn't a story arc. It's the story you could have told by seeing one trailer. Will Smith will somehow work it out. Yeah, they throw a curveball or two but it all leads directly to the exact place where you know it will lead if you've ever seen a July 4th mega-blockbuster. To a film that has an interesting concept like this, that's absolute death. I'm guessing that some of it has to do with the PG-13 rating that Hancock had to buy. The MPAA clearly let them get away with more than your average PG-13, but the film never descends into full rated-R mayhem, and it suffers for it. It's like Vince Vaughn said back in Swingers. I really wanted this film to be the guy I wasn't too sure about.

That said, this film will have plenty of apologists. It's big and effects-driven which is the summer formula for clocking dollars. Hancock will make boatloads of cash. But it's not going to be anyone's favorite in ten years, and it will be placed in the Wild, Wild, West / Men in Black II bin of Will Smith's career. It's really kind of a bummer. This film could have been a contender. See it for the effects if you must, but don't you dare fall in love with the story. You're better than that.

Grade: C