Will Smith has one of the best qualities that a leading man can possess: innate likability. Few leading men have this in as much abundance; perhaps only Tom Hanks gets close. No matter what role Smith plays, audiences feel compelled to like him, and for the most part Smith has played likable characters. In Hancock, Smith challenges the audience to stick with him while we find anything likable about an alcoholic superhero that shows nothing but contempt for the people and the city he protects. The bigger challenge, though, is in finding anything funny about Hancock, and unfortunately there isn’t much comedy to be found.
It’s a great concept for a comedy, especially in this era of comic-book filmmaking What if a superhero was a real jerk? (In Hancock, a seven-letter pungent euphemism for jerk gets used repeatedly, and at least twice by children who would get their mouths washed out with soap for using it.) What if he created so much damage through his boozy heroism that he actually got booed by crowds and sued by the people he rescued? All sorts of comic possibilities present themselves, almost all of which get abandoned in the first 30 minutes of a blessedly short 92-minute film.
Instead, the film opts for pathos as it sends us through a tiresome sequence of rehabilitation and the uncovering of the backstory for Hancock, who suffers from amnesia. After saving the life of a PR specialist — a man who actually thanks him for saving his life — Hancock allows him to help remake his image, which also should have presented a wide range of hilarious options. Instead, we get Lost Weekend Lite with a dash of The Greatest American Hero, without the latter’s wit and charm.
Even then, the film would have been worth a viewing, except for the self-important and melodramatic directing of Peter Berg. Moviegoers have suffered through three decades of directors who believe that shaking cameras somehow makes the cinematic experience more authentic — but why use it with a superhero movie? Berg also apparently belongs to that group of auteurs who eschew the focus while shooting rapid-cut ultra-close-ups. A little of that goes a long way, but Berg goes overboard, giving this the feel of The Constant Gardener or Any Given Sunday, two movies that Hancock nonetheless surpasses — but that’s damning with faint praise.
Call this one a missed opportunity. In the hands of another director and set of writers, it could have been a classic satire of a movie form that has threatened to engulf Hollywood. It’s still worth a watch when it hits HBO, and I wouldn’t expect it to take long to get there.