Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hancock (Sony/Columbia, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I ran last night was Hancock, which I’d been mildly interested in but which the Columbia House DVD Club sent me unbid (I must have forgotten to respond to their mailers — I probably thought I’d gone online to cancel this one but hadn’t). It turned out to be a pleasant surprise and at least two-thirds of a good movie. John Hancock (Will Smith) is a super-powered human who thinks the usual skin-tight superhero costumes are “faggy” and who does his super-things in ordinary street clothes, looking awfully dowdy since when he’s not being a superhero he’s a down-and-out alcoholic who lives in two old, abandoned trailers he’s jammed together and whose only source of solid food is Jiffy-Pop popcorn. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the makers of Jiffy-Pop paid for this product placement!)

In the opening scene, three Asian-American baddies are careening down the street in a white SUV and causing havoc, but not so much havoc as the whiskey-soaked Hancock causes when he goes after them and ends up causing $9 million of damage to innocent people’s cars and properties before impaling the bad guys’ SUV on the spire atop the Capitol Tower. The L.A. County district attorney’s office (this is set in Los Angeles, which if nothing else made it easier for them to find locations) announces that they intend to prosecute Hancock for the rampage — and for the next one he starts, in which he comes across a car trapped in a traffic jam and stalled across a railroad track with a train bearing down on it. (For a moment I thought the filmmakers were going to pull Buster Keaton’s old gag of having the train miss the car, and then another train on a track going the other direction would hit it.)

Hancock saves the car’s occupant, public-relations consultant Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), though typically he also destroys most of the other cars caught in the traffic jam and, instead of merely lifting Ray’s car out of the way of the train, stops the train with his own body (in a move that, as Charles pointed out, would have killed everybody on the train from the sudden deceleration — though it turns out to be a freight train and therefore the only people on board, aside from any hoboes or runaways, would have been the people driving the locomotive). Ray agrees to give Hancock a P.R. makeover and tells him to work on his landings — he can fly but he can’t seem to come down to earth again without tearing up great chunks of pavement in the process — and also that he should turn himself in and do a stretch in county jail, which he does via a press conference that’s probably the most pointed moment of the script by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, an hilarious send-up of celebrity rehab!

Ray lives in an ordinary suburban house in the San Fernando Valley with his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and his — but not her — son Aaron (Jae Head); we’re told later that Aaron’s mom died giving birth to him and then Mary came along as an “angel” to redeem Ray’s life and get him over his grief. (This will become an important plot point later on.) For the first hour or so this is a truly delightful comedy — and it is a comedy — that makes gentle but unmistakable fun of the superhero genre and manages to answer questions I’ve always had, like wouldn’t the residents of a city where a superhero operated finally decide he was more trouble than he was worth because of all the super-villains he’d attract; just how would anybody repair the damage the hero caused in his crime-fighting activities; and whether a being with super-powers could possibly have sex with a being without them without burning out her insides. (In one early scene, Hancock attracts a young Black woman groupie, takes her back to his place and warns her to pull back before he climaxes — and when she ignores his warning, the power of his orgasm literally pushes her away from him, across his room and through his wall until she collapses outside.)

Then the script takes more conventional paths and introduces a plot twist that turns this film from an engaging comedy to something considerably less fun. Hancock finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to Mary Embrey, and one day while he’s at their house and Ray and Aaron are out Hancock makes his move, they get almost to the point of a kiss (supposedly the DVD contains a 102-minute extended version of the film, 10 minutes longer than the standard theatrical release, in which they do kiss, but the one we watched was the 92-minute theatrical version), and suddenly she flies him across the room. Yes, folks, it turns out that she is a super-being just like himself, though she’s given up the superhero life and is content to be the normal suburban housewife, sort of like Elizabeth Montgomery’s character on Bewitched. (You didn’t think that after her star-making, Oscar-winning part in Monster they’d cast Charlize Theron as a real suburban housewife, did you?)

What’s more, it turns out that they’re both over 3,000 years old and that they were destined to be a pair, only part of the deal that gave them their super-powers in the first place also was that if they actually got together and lived as a couple, they would both lose their super-powers forever and would also lose their immortality, living the rest of a human life span and then dying at the regular age. The two recall the previous times they did actually live together, including one in the 1860’s and one “80 years ago” — a somewhat confused time sequence because their idyll ended after they went to a movie theatre in Miami together to see the James Whale Frankenstein on its initial release — the dialogue said they saw it 80 years earlier, which would have been 1928, three years before Frankenstein (and someone with sharper eyes than mine these days, and no doubt the advantage of having seen this in a theatre, noted that on the ticket stub for the showing, which she’s carefully preserved, one contributor to noted that the date on the stub was June 21, 1931 — the right year but still almost five months before the actual release of Frankenstein on November 4) — only they were set upon by a lynch mob upset at the sight of an interracial couple in Miami in the Jim Crow era (Charles was upset at this plot twist, finding that even within the suspension of disbelief required by a superhero movie it was way too hard to believe that they could have lived in Miami together without becoming aware of the danger of racist vigilantism well before this!) and, with his superpowers ebbing, Hancock was beaten so badly he lost his memory … which led to his being called Hancock; when a nurse asked him to “put your John Hancock” on the admission form, he thought she was calling him by name.

Then both Hancock and Mary are near-mortally wounded and there’s a major crisis that resolves itself into the movie’s final action scene, edited in typical modern-day Cuisinart style in which Hancock and Mary seem to be in synch so that every time one of them has a life-threatening crisis the other does, too — until both more or less recover and accept the need for geographical separation, so Hancock goes to New York to do his superhero thing there while Mary stays in L.A. with Ray — and as a final thank-you Hancock goes to the moon and burns onto its surface the read “All Heart” logo Ray was trying to sell various major corporations on — the idea being that it would become a symbol that his pharmaceutical-company clients were giving away their drugs free to Third World people who really needed them (the board members he was pitching this to, including director Peter Berg in a cameo, respond with a predictable lack of enthusiasm, just as they do to Bono and other would-be savants in the real world offering similar advice).

The finale of Hancock is a bit of a let-down, taking what’s been a well-pointed spoof of the superhero genre into serious action-film territory, but it’s a nice movie anyway, largely due to the excellent acting of Will Smith, who as he’s got older has got more character in his face; he really does look like a down-and-out man laboring under severe psychological burdens and a set of super-powers that all too often seem like far more trouble than they’re worth. It’s a star vehicle for him — even Charlize Theron’s role could have been played by just about any actress of the right age and figure — and it works (and while seemingly no one was looking Will Smith quietly took over from Tom Cruise as the world’s most popular movie star, as measured by the consistently stratospheric box-office grosses of his films: yet another triumph for racial equality in the year of Obama!).