Movie Mix

Will Smith's 'Hancock' Fiasco

"Hancock" is supposed to be a wry commentary on the pressure of being Will Smith, but the message gets lost in a big-budget Hollywood train wreck.
"Hancock" starts off with an inspired idea: Will Smith as an angry street person alienated by his own superpowers. Smith's Hancock is overlaid with two potentially volatile elements that accompany Smith everywhere: his race and his superstar status. In the typical Will Smith movie, those elements are neutralized and made to play nice together. That's why everybody not only loves Will Smith, but loves to boast about how much they love him; because of his unique ability to negotiate black stardom with such aplomb, distributors have long claimed he "transcends race" (meaning his films sell anywhere, even in regions and nations where racial prejudice typically limits the box-office appeal of certain stars). You can see the logic behind Barack Obama's joke that he'd like to see Will Smith play him in a movie. In turn, Will Smith joked on a recent episode of "The Colbert Report" that Obama might ruin his own plan to become the first African American president. Each recognizes in the other his fellow "transcender." Both are engaged in a public high-wire act that's exhausting to watch, in part because it must appear to be as effortless and uncalculated as possible.

In succeeding so spectacularly so far, both men risk accusations of "transcending race" by selling out, flashing megawatt smiles while skating over the bitterness of the African American experience, refusing to display anger, appealing to white audiences with endless reassurance: See how smoothly we've succeeded, how apparently unscarred we are by experience, what solid citizens we are with our nicely tailored suits, our picture-perfect families, our upbeat attitudes. Madison Avenue couldn't have come up with better advertisements for racial progress in America than Obama and Smith.

Which somehow makes it a downright relief to see Will Smith slouching around in a greasy watch cap, drinking cheap bourbon out of the bottle and swearing at anyone who looks at him. It's clear that the marketing drones who designed the film's preview actually understood the appeal of the project, making it all about Smith- -- Smith slouching, Smith snarling, Smith drunk, Smith looking dirty and smelly and low-down, Smith seeming to care nothing about his own appeal, his own powers or his own popularity. Seeing him play the opposite of the slick "Mr. July" blockbuster persona is an example of the conspiratorial joy we feel watching any big star subvert his or her own image, knowing that our star will be restored to us before long. We know Will Smith will emerge clean, handsome and can-do, just like we know the supposedly plain, awkward, badly dressed girl will get a makeover and turn into Anne Hathaway. We like watching this star-emerging process over and over.

But in "Hancock," Smith's roll in the gutter followed by his transformation back into his usual shiny star-self has an even bigger kick to it: It's a spasm of guilty pleasure when the African American Superman allows the audience, for a moment, to share the inhuman, exhausting strain of trying to be "twice as perfect."

The trouble with "Hancock" is that its wry, reflexive commentary on the pressure of being Will Smith gets lost in the more typical reflexivity of the big-budget Hollywood fiasco: It turns into a movie about how hard it is to make a decent movie, no matter how good the starting concept is. Somewhere along the line, this train crashed -- which is why it's so dismally appropriate that "Hancock" leads off with an early staging of an actual train wreck. The film wreck is so awful, and so slow to develop, that as you watch you have plenty of time to guess what, or who, went wrong here. Which one of the credited screenwriters -- Vy Vincent Ngo or Vince Gilligan -- is more responsible for the moronic script elements that finally and completely ruin an excellent premise about an antisocial drunken bum who's also a highly damage-prone superhero? Which superstar with an amazing track record of hit movies really should have given up his embarrassing producer credit on this fiasco? We all know the answer to that one: Will Smith -- though it may be that all he wanted was the chance to do this hugely satisfying star turn as the world's angriest, most powerful and least "presentable" black man.

To be fair, Smith's surly Hancock isn't the only joy in the film. There are a few sunny scenes early on in the movie that showcase the nicely synchronized comedic skills of Smith and Jason Bateman (star of the dearly departed "Arrested Development"), as overeager PR man Ray Embrey, who is determined to "rebrand" Hancock for the disgruntled public. They're allowed, in a quiet interlude when Director Peter Berg is, perhaps, sleeping it off in his trailer, to do their amusing work unimpeded by camera shots angled up their noses and other distractions. Unfortunately, this brief idyll is interrupted by a rapid series of catastrophic plot twists. The twists mostly concern the character of Ray's wife Mary, played by Charlize Theron, but I can't describe them because of the Spoiler Prohibition Act of 1936. Also because you wouldn't believe me anyway -- that's how surprising they are. I guarantee your jaw will drop, right before you throw your hands up in disgust, spilling your popcorn.

While all this deranged footage was unspooling, I thought what a shame it was that the people responsible for this mess couldn't keep it together long enough to do justice to the inspired casting that reconfigured an already good concept in such a promising way. The scenes of the "rebranding" of Smith's Hancock by Bateman's PR man, for example, with their anxious makeover tutorials on proper grooming, clothing, and above all, public manners, fairly vibrate with the cultural memory: Jackie Robinson in the '40s, chosen to break the color barrier in baseball as much because of his clean-cut good looks and quiet, contained manner as his remarkable skills as a player, and coached into maintaining unflinching calm in the face of every kind of taunt, insult and death threat. Sidney Poitier in the Civil Rights Era, mocked as "the Ebony Saint" for the impossible perfection of his face, voice, clothes and bearing, as well as the saintly characters he knew he had to play. And today, Obama, so accomplished at presenting his impeccable persona that it began to interfere with his ability to come across as "human," resulting in the odd announcement, "I am not a perfect man." When Smith, as Hancock, makes a statement to the press promising to the public he'll reform and "be better" than the superhero he already is, but asking for understanding because "I'm the only one of the my kind," there's a long echo back down the straggling line of historic figures who "transcended race" before him.
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