There's one passablegood thing about Hancock, and that's Will Smith: The bankable, likable star seems game, if somewhat off-the-mark. Everything and everybody else can't break through this jumbled-up mess from Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights).
Smith portrays Hancock, a pissed-off superhero living in Los Angeles, whose reputation for collateral destruction and churlish behavior has residents and authorities irate. But however reluctant he is, it's in Hancock's nature to save lives.
One such lucky citizen is Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), who is rescued, albeit clumsily, from the path of an oncoming train. Coincidentally, Embrey is a public-relations specialist and certified good guy.
Embrey takes Hancock home for dinner, where the jerky hero meets Embrey's disapproving wife (Charlize Theron) and his instantly adoring son. As payback, Embrey sets out to revamp Hancock's image, starting with a public apology, a stint in jail and some group therapy. Eventually, Hancock re-emerges as a New and Improved Superhero, but with a fresh slate of unexpected challenges.
You can almost divide the film into three distinct segments, none of which fit together satisfactorily.
There's the early comedy, in which Smith gets some laughs as a boozy, foul-mouthed asshole and causes a mess of funny damage while superhero-ing. Director Berg delivered a pitch-black comedy 10 years ago, the Vegas romp Very Bad Things, and even his big-budget B-movie, 2003's The Rundown, was a better riff on the action-man genre. But Hancock can't find its footing as something comically fresh. It's never a good sign when the first 30 minutes deliver such tired gags as a Nancy Grace cameo and an SUV-load of jokey ethnic gangsters.
The middle third is a self-help dramedy, in which Hancock broods and tries to be a better person, while causing some domestic strife at Chez Embrey. The final third is a jacked-up actioner, precipitated by some out-of-left-field, last-minute mythology, and further muddied by TV-grade, dead-or-not-dead melodrama.
Hancock's most fertile ground would seem to be in the darkly comedic. We like our superheroes super-serious, or snarky and self-aware, while still being cleanly heroic, both in spirit and in practice. Sharper writing could have wrung out a decent black comedy based on a superhero character who didn't like his job and didn't give a rat's ass.
Hancock wants it all ways. It asks us to laugh at Hancock and mock the concept of "superhero." But it also wants us to care about his feelings and to believe in a bunch of flying-dude-to-the-rescue mumbo-jumbo as the solution to all life's problems.
So despite its hints that the film will subvert conventions, Hancock blunders its way to a predictable place: It restores the family unit and puts yet another gloss on the hackneyed ideal of the noble, solitary warrior, suppressing his own desires for the good of the rest of us. What's so funny about that?
- Just who needs saving, anyhow? Jason Bateman and Will Smith.