Hancock sports a premise that must have seemed loaded with potential on paper. Will Smith as not simply a superhero, but a drunken superhero? The inebriated anti-Superman? What could be more explosively funny, after all, than a fog-brained, intoxicated caped crusader, klutzily lunging around in the skies, crashing headfirst into billboards on the Los Angeles freeway and causing all kinds of wanton destruction? It isn't difficult to see why Columbia greenlit this one. But this big-budget special-effects-saturated comic fantasy is far from a classic, and the sequences in it that deliver a genuine impact exist so far outside the sphere of comedy that perhaps the producers should have done away with the farcical element altogether.
To be more specific, the above one-sentence premise is actually misleading: Hancock incorporates not one but two films -- it begins as a farce about a superhero lush, then doesn't quite know where to go with that, swaps genres and derails into a far more interesting movie. Smith, of course, is John Hancock, an Angelino endowed with the abilities of supersonic and interstellar flight, unlimited strength, and an immunity to all forms of injury. He's also a crass, foul-mouthed, lazy, booze-soaked nightmare with little regard for anyone other than himself -- his heroic exploits leave a trail of careless and excessive destruction, such as an incident in which he hijacks a carload of terrorists, lifts the car thousands of feet off the ground, and then impales it (terrorists and all) on the needle of a skyscraper. All of this brouhaha, of course, royally tees off both taxpayers and Los Angeles city officials, who have long since grown so jaded with Hancock's outrageous exploits that they want him put away for a long, long time.
There are a few (read: very few) moments of comic glory in these early stages, and one would be hard-pressed not to chuckle at the sight of Hancock in mid-flight with a massive bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand (an inspired and outrageously funny image), or the sight of Hancock enjoying "spaghetti madness" with a suburban family and violently cramming mounds of pasta and meatballs into his mouth like the biggest slob that ever walked. But 95 percent of the humor in the first half of the movie feels both lazy and stupid; most of the film's "comic highlights" consist of scenes where Hancock's taunters repeatedly goad him into outrageous acts of violence by calling him an "asshole" -- not exactly unfettered comic inspiration, let alone when it is reiterated multiple times. The film scrapes the bottom of the gutter in one of the opening scenes, when it assigns that language to a four- or five-year-old boy.
About 25 minutes in -- when a washed-up PR executive named Ray Embrey (a miscast Jason Bateman) crisscrosses paths with Hancock and carries out an ingenious plan to "improve" his image by cleaning him up -- one wonders how in the world the movie can sustain itself, especially after Hancock follows suit so quickly. It does, and then some, by pulling one unforeseen card out of its deck -- a massive plot twist not given away in any of the movie's trailers or write-ups. I won't spoil the movie by disclosing it here, but will only state that the comedy basically disappears from the film about 50 minutes in, and that -- if it becomes a far more conventional superhero movie in terms of doing away with Hancock's slobbery -- it also unveils a surprisingly complex and thoughtful backstory for Hancock, one with epic undercurrents, as well as strands of pathos, romance, enhanced psychological complexity (including a subconscious reason for his boozing) and historical implication. The degree to which director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) handles these sincere and earnest moments adroitly strikes one as so convincing and so astonishing after the ineptitude of the first half hour that, again, one cannot shake the feeling that he should just lose the comedy altogether -- that he's working in the wrong genre here. Unfortunately, the picture sets up such interesting implications in terms of what it does with John Hancock's backstory that the ending feels like a cop-out, both unresolved and half-assed. In terms of where it leaves the other characters, it raises far more questions than it can even begin to answer, and Berg and his scriptwriters fail to even try.
The performances feel uneven; Smith is engaging as usual, but Bateman delivers an absolutely atrocious portrayal that surely must have left the director and producers gagging helplessly. He interprets Ray Embrey as a kind of whiny and ineffectual weakling -- a loser wimp whose ability to attract his dynamic spouse, Mary (Charlize Theron), is as much of a mystery as his ability, from what we see of his one PR campaign, to sustain a home in the valley and support a wife and child. Theron, however, virtually walks away with the movie; interpreting Mary as a fierce, angry, and impassioned woman, she brings far more depth, resonance, and dimension to the character than the material even begins to deserve, and again (as in Monster) proves why she is one of Hollywood's most disciplined and underutilized actresses.