I don’t know what film-school genius is teaching his students to use handheld cameras in lieu of stationary shots, but once the dizziness fades I’m going to track him down and beat him to death with his seldom-used tripod. The litany of errors that ultimately makes Hancock a disappointment includes the apparent employment of someone’s drunken cousin as cameraman, but this proves to be a relatively small sin. I suppose this fact doesn’t mitigate in the movie’s favor.
Perhaps the reason I am so hostile to this film is that, once I popped an extra Claritin and vomited into my popcorn container, I was able to see past the shaky-Jake filming to enjoy the characters. This wanted to be a modern all-American story. For the first hour, in fact, it was exactly that. Here we have the likeable Will Smith playing a sullen, misunderstood, reluctant superhero. Antics ensue. He crosses paths with a likeable, sweet-faced Jason Bateman, in the role of an idealistic P.R. specialist. (This is fiction, remember. One suspends disbelief upon entering the theater. More on that in a moment.)
Bateman has a lovely wife, played by Charlize Theron, and an adorable son. You know where this is going. Our reluctant superhero, with help from his kind-hearted sidekick, is going to overcome his demons, discover the Inner Hero that we all want to believe is inside us, and save the day. Some Lex Luthor figure will emerge to challenge our hero, perhaps possessing knowledge of his secret weakness. We know that our hero will triumph nonetheless, no doubt with some unlikely, fully expected bravery from his loveable sidekick.
This is the story we expect when we plunk down our money and willfully suspend disbelief in people who can fly. Yes, it is as old as apple pie, but you know what? People like apple pie. This isn’t to say that you can’t experiment with some rhubarb pie, perhaps even a chocolate-lemon mousse cake. But don’t serve your customer a warm slice of apple pie with vanilla ice cream on the side, and then yank it away from him in mid-bite and replace it with some kind of funky low-carb mango-coconut bubble tea.
This is what the writers of Hancock have done. To be clear, I have no problem with twists in a movie. Norman Bates keeps his mommy in the basement. Darth is Luke’s father. Soylent Green is made from people. The Crying Game changed the calculus of dating forever. And since we’ve invoked Christopher Reeve’s greatest work, who can forget his surprising, albeit creepily enthusiastic, kiss with Michael Caine in Deathtrap?
The problem with Hancock‘s writers is not that they introduce a game-changing shift halfway through the movie. The problem is that they forget a fundamental rule of fiction, which is that while we viewers are willing to suspend our disbelief, most of us in possession of it are not able to suspend our common sense. Thus when a circumstance emerges to eliminate Hancock’s superpowers we accept it, until we see that a moment later his powers have inexplicable returned. Suspension of disbelief can’t help one make sense of this movie’s ending, one needs a suspension of observational powers as well. Perhaps that’s the reason for all the camera-yanking. Bullets can suddenly penetrate our hero’s skin, and lay him on a deathbed, except when he needs to get up and be a superhero again. Only he is a weak superhero, so he is vulnerable to bullets. Yet he still has superstrength. But not really. Except for when he does.
Compounding this problem is the fact that we invest our imagination in characters only to watch the active become passive, the loyal and loving become alien, and the idiotic suddenly acquire brains without visiting the Wizard. We need compelling reasons to abandon the work we have put into forming attachments to these characters, which Hancock‘s writers don’t provide. This is a Hollywood movie, they must have been thinking. Jerk that camera around some more and our woozy audience will take whatever we dish out. Let’s just remember to blow up a lot of stuff at the end.
The net result is that as we approach the final scene, Jason Bateman and his son have become emotionally non-existent, Will Smith has regressed in humanity, and Charlize Theron has gone from beautiful to just plain irritating. It takes a lot of explosions to make up for that sort of destruction. Pile on top of it the nonsensical fluctuation in Hancock’s superpowers, and you’ve got yourself rice pudding when you thought you were paying for apple pie. And that’s plain un-American.
I know it’s not available at the McDonald’s Redbox yet, but I’m going to give Hancock a nugget rating nonetheless, because I think it will serve better as rental entertainment, plus you are less likely to get brain damage watching the herky-jerky camera movement on a little screen. I’m giving this film three nuggets, all of which should be eaten in the first half.