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Surly superman

Hancock's sum is not greater than its parts

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 4, 2008 at 3:42 a.m.

— With its intriguing premise (who says superheroes have to adopt alter egos? Who says they have to be so righteous all the time? Why can't they sometimes be no-account boozers working through personal issues in public?) and its brief running time, Hancock appears to be an enticing alternative to some of this season's underwhelming and overlong (The Hulk, Indiana Jones, Speed Racer) blockbusters.

But the real attraction of any Will Smith movie is first and foremost Will Smith, who may be either the laziest or the smartest man in Hollywood. That Smith is a charismatic actor is apparent to everyone; that he is also a gifted one is apparent to anyone who saw him in Six Degrees of Separation (1993). But relatively few people saw that filmand Smith has, for the most part, been content to glide along on charm and a calculated formula for choosing bigbudget projects that pay off. He's become the most bankable movie star in the world without seeming to work too hard.

He does work hard in Hancock; at times he seems so deeply invested in his character that he doesn't even both-er to wink at his audience. This choice is supported by director Peter Berg's unusual but mostly successful strategy of often getting in the face of these characters, John Cassavetes-style, as though he's shooting a character-driven indie drama.

Which might be what Hancock really wants to be - while the superhero special effects are undeniably state of the digital art, Berg seems to realize that we're no longer that thrilled by the sight of a man hurtling through the air or the destruction of a city. So why not smuggle in a triangulated love story - and clue in the movie-savvy through stylistic grace notes?

But there's a problem: the grafted-on indie movie relies on a surreal premise on which, despite the best efforts of the actors, we're never completely sold. Hancock feels like three or four movies compacted - Wall-E style - into an amalgam that conforms to the summer movie template. You've got two big stars (Smith and Charlize Theron), one reliable journeyman on a hot streak (Jason Bateman), lots of blown-up and broken stuff, and some dry black humor.

Hancock is less a conventional superhero than a depressive god - his desultory crime-fighting causes more problems than it solves, so he's widely regarded as an often-inebriated jerk. (He's apparently immortal, and while we get that it's just a movie, it seems improbable that ordinary criminals would be so eager to engage this bulletproof superstrong force of the universe as often as they do.)

Hancock has lost his mojo and his memory, and Smith playshis loneliness and churlishness straight. He's not terrifically interested in saving the world, which is exactly what wide-eyed public relations guy Ray (Bateman) means to do. Ray wants to help refurbish Hancock's image after the erstwhile hero saves his life (and in the process wrecks a train). Hancock reluctantly accedes to Ray's offer of a makeover, because it's no fun being universally despised.

Or maybe it has something to do with Ray's wife Mary (Theron) who - we understand as soon as she appears on screen - has a history with Hancock.

Something might be said for the character Hancock as a symbol of an universally reviled America, a superpower whose best intended actions seem to wreak havoc in the world. After all, the character's name is John Hancock. And his symbol - if he has one - is an eagle.

But that's something to think about, and summer movies are successful to the degree that theyinvite us not to think about them. Hancock might have been a better movie if it'd been a little quieter, a little darker and even a little longer. There are lots of interesting ideas and some fine work on display, but it never gels into a fully satisfying movie experience. Like its titular super-anti-hero, it only works sometimes.

MovieStyle, Pages 39, 44 on 07/04/2008

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