In the screwed-up summer diversion Hancock, Will Smith plays a disheveled, hard-drinking, Los Angeles-based superhero referred to on the street by cute kids and peaceful oldies alike as an a–hole. The designation is a punch line in itself, uttered throughout the movie with a glee that challenges profanity conventions in a mainstream publication, since one of the feats Smith sets for himself in his latest attempt at Fourth of July box office superheroism is to apply his kryptonite-resistant personal likability to a character who is, at first glance, a real schmuck. After some sort of accident, the reluctant crimestopper doesn’t know who he is or why he’s in L.A. (hence the generic name John Hancock); he just knows he possesses otherworldly talents for flying and hurling automobiles, among other attributes useful for surviving in the City of Angels. And at first close encounter, he’s an alcohol-soaked curmudgeon with a bum’s wardrobe and a really bad attitude. Even those he saves wish he would go be a hero somewhere else.
Hancock can revel in schmuckery, of course, because you and I and cute kids and peaceful oldies worldwide know in advance that there’s no way on Hollywood’s green earth Will Smith will ever play someone seriously, dangerously unsavory. Charm is the star’s armor on either side of the alien-human divide, whether he’s a Fresh Prince, a Bad Boy, a Man in Black, the last man alive in New York City, or Muhammad Ali. And so, in the beginning, the movie — part comedy, part action-thriller, and a whole lot of earnest, addled mush about purpose, fate, and angels — lets Smith (who is also one of the producers) have fun goofing on all that has already served him so well as a performer: Here’s a hero in need of remedial charm school.
In the story’s most original notion (the script is credited to first-timer Vy Vincent Ngo and X-Files staff writer Vince Gilligan), Hancock saves a PR executive named Ray (Jason Bateman). In addition to inviting the hungry superhero over for a thank-you dinner of spaghetti, meatballs, and family togetherness with his dubious, dewy wife (Charlize Theron) and their bright sprite of a son (Friday Night Lights’ Jae Head), Ray gets the idealistic brainstorm to rehabilitate Hancock with a personalized image makeover. He aims to turn the mutt into a better person as well as a more super hero. The PR pro also harbors an unabashedly idealistic desire to make the world a better place by encouraging rich companies to donate lifesaving products to the poor — a business goal that, no matter how noble, comes across like an unasked-for lesson in a movie released when school’s out.
The scenes of Hancock improving his presentation skills, complete with a Queer Eye-ready custom costume, are droll, with a big assist from Bateman and the attitude of controlled exasperation he perfected on Arrested Development. (Ray’s wife is more skeptical of Hancock’s capacity for rehabilitation, and she demonstrates that by giving their guest what appears to be the stink eye. Their son seems to think the visitor is as cool as Will Smith.) But then the movie goes someplace else, a direction not to be revealed except to say that Hancock the jaunty, jokey riff on the screwed-up inner emotional life of a traditionally ironclad superhero becomes Hancock the icky lesson in the importance of personal responsibility, loyalty, and continued family togetherness. Also, of making the world a better place, and keeping Will Smith’s income steady.
And, oh yes, there’s that talk of angels, or is it some sci-fi race of extraterrestrials who’d feel at home in Battlefield Earth? To further confound clarity, director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler favor a visual style that can best be described as Serious Focus on the Eyeball. Arty, randomly inserted extreme close-ups on a quadrant of Smith’s lovely face, or Theron’s, or Bateman’s, are meant to convey intensity of emotional content. Really, what moviegoers hanker for is a hero to step in and adjust the depth of focus to something suitable for a cute movie about a magical dude who smashes tall buildings with a single bound. C+