The newly released Hancock features Will Smith as a homeless, drunken, and unpopular superhero whose exploits save human beings from dire situations — but only at the cost of enormous destruction of property. Now, the reluctant superhero is a common enough plot device, but the superhero who reviles those he helps is, understandably, a less common theme. The film does a serviceable job of introducing these matters, but it is thoroughly undone by plot twists that are preposterous — even by the low standards of superhero films — and by its penchant for pretentious musings on “gods, angels, and superheroes.”
Hancock’s inordinate violence and offensively crude language raise questions, yet again, about Hollywood’s rating standards (Hancock is a PG-13 but should have been an R) as well as the industry’s cynical advertising campaigns. As director Peter Berg has admitted, the “ad campaign is much friendlier than the film.” It was an unfortunate choice of projects for leading man Will Smith — who has developed a broad popularity thanks to mostly family-friendly roles. On many levels, Hancock is the worst film of the year.
In the opening scene, Hancock saves the day but, as usual, causes millions of dollars in damage. The reluctant superhero also indulges in his habit of insulting those who stand around gawking at him. When a group of bystanders threatens to sue him for damages, he turns to one overweight woman and says, “You should sue McDonald’s. That’s who screwed you up.”
By chance, he saves the life of Ray Embry (Jason Bateman), an idealistic PR executive with dreams of changing the world. Embry befriends Hancock, and invites him home to meets Embry’s son, Aaron (Jae Head), and his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), with whom he exchanges some lingering glances. Embry decides to make Hancock his next PR project, to change his image and make him beloved by the citizens of Los Angeles.
There are some funny scenes. Embry, in an effort to convince Hancock that he needs image enhancement, shows Hancock some unflattering YouTube footage, including a clip in which Hancock saves a beached whale by hurling it through the air and onto a passing sailboat.
But much of the attempted humor comes off flat or makes the viewer uneasy. Playing her TV personality, Nancy Grace has a cameo accusing Hancock of flouting the Constitution. What’s humorous here is unintended. Grace, who perhaps saw herself as doing a parody, simply offers the usual nauseating rant in her irritating accent with the same vapidity she regularly displays on CNN.
As the project of remaking Hancock’s image proceeds, the film suddenly introduces a surprise plot twist. There are hints early on that something might be coming; still, the precise nature of the surprise — which has to do with the back-story of Hancock’s life and mission — is so outrageously absurd that the suspension of disbelief is impossible. Since the finale of the film focuses entirely on this plot twist, it should have been more fully developed in the first reel.
Moreover, the film’s second half desperately wants to try to say something serious about love and mortality — about the superhero’s vulnerability and the necessity of sacrificing close attachments to others. The final scenes of the first Spiderman film handled these issues about as well as could be expected, and by contrast, Hancock offers viewers only superficial pabulum. The filmmakers seem disposed to treat viewers as idiots who should be happy enough fawning over Smith and Theron.
Since the film is roughly a cross between Spiderman and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, it might have been a lot more entertaining with Nick Nolte in the lead role. Even better would be Damon Wayans, reprising his part as Anton the homeless guy from In Living Color; his portable facility is a perfect fit for the creative humor of Hancock. At least Nolte and Wayans would have had the good sense not to take the character seriously.
This eminently forgettable film does raise an interesting question about ratings and advertising — PR, Hollywood-style. Whereas Get Smart barely earned its PG-13 rating with humor not much more suggestive than what one finds on an average episode of The Simpsons, Hancock comes awfully close to meriting an R-rating: characters whom the audience has been led to care about fall victim to graphic violence. While there may be less gratuitous violence in Hancock than there was in Will Smith’s I Am Legend — another film that deserved an R rating — there is enough to make this film unsuitable for children.
The film’s inordinate use of offensive language also makes it a poor candidate for family summertime viewing. It seems safe to say that Hancock has what Freud would call a serious anal fixation. That obsession culminates with Hancock threatening to shove someone’s head in someone else’s posterior, and then doing it. The scene’s musical accompaniment is the theme song from Sanford and Son. That is a musical touch one might expect in an R-rated Tarantino film; here it indicates how far the film has departed from its advertising emphasis on Will Smith as mainstream star.
The star of Hancock, it turns out, is neither Smith nor Theron, but Bateman, who embodies the delusions of the Hollywood PR machine, the noble way they would like to see themselves. The truth is that they are crass, cynical, and greedy. It looks like there may be a point to Hancock’s obsession with excrement, after all.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.