Saturday, January 3, 2009

Hancock: A Movie With Two Identities, One Which Isn't Bad, the Other Which Sucks

Now it's time for some DVD reviews, starting with Will Smith's Hancock, which I saw over the summer and is now out for rent.

In case you weren't aware at the time, Hancock was unveiled to some pretty poor reviews, most of which point out the same problem I had with it: the second half sucks. (although that didn't stop it from topping the box office for its opening weekend.)

But it's more than just a sucky third act (and missing second) that ruins this movie. What disappointed me most was that the first half, the story of how a down-and-out superhero meets the PR man who will rehability his piss-poor reputation with the public, was so original and interesting - for a summer movie. And so the second half not only completely betrayed the tone and interest of the first, it left all the issues raised by the first half (how publicity can transform the image of a superhero) unresolved in order to go off in a completely derivative (and pretty stupid) direction. So not only did the second half suck, it was so unrelated to what came before, you never find out how the first half of the story was supposed to end. The worst of all story-telling mistakes. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that was this disjointed between the first act and the end.

My first assumption was that Hancock suffered from Hollywood ReWrite Syndrome. A little research reveals this is pretty much true: the original script was much closer to the first half of the movie, all the way through. However, although the rewrites introduces the disappointing concept of a (SPOILER ALERT) second superhero, it also seems to have moved a lot of the movie location and spirit and introduced some of the more interesting elements of the PR man remaking the image of a misunderstood superhero.

Since I found the PR/Los Angeles angle from the first half the most interesting idea in the film, I can't blame its odd disjointedness totally on the rewrite. So what went wrong? A classic case of bad story telling, of giving up a good premise to substitute another that is not really quite so strong. A case of welding two different movies together that never should have been joined. Hey - I've made this mistake, too, when writing a screenplay. But usually, someone will call it for the crap it is, and force me back to the drawing board to kill off the weaker twin and raise the other. And didn't anyone notice that in both of these stories, the superhero of this film isn't given any kind of villain to fight?

I don't know what sent this movie so off track. Hancock, as embodied by the too-cool-to-act Will Smith, is a bit too self-pitying to be believed. So maybe one of the test audiences said, "where did this Hancock person come from?" and off they went. But they could have settled that question with a single line; they didn't have to eviscerate the whole movie to do it.

It's such a shame, because if they had stuck with the premise of the first act all the way through, this could have been a really brilliant movie - a kind of live-action Wall-E for adults. And a different kind of villain - a real-life villain called "the PR machine" - would have been really quite fascinating.

The premise: is being a "superhero" really created exclusively through public relations? Or rather, how essential is the right PR to turning talent from being annoying to being cloying? Just when the story starts to turn: just when Hancock foils a bank robbery and does everything right just the PR guy says he should in order to win public approval - we drop the PR angle entirely. It's never heard from again. It's as if the main character (no, Will Smith is not the main character - he's the mirror) might as well be a gas station attendant or a potted plant.

But what if the movie continued to exploit the PR theme through to the end? What if Hancock becomes the superhero he longs to be, becomes not only accepted by the public but irrationally desired, because of the PR man's success? What if Hancock's successful public relations itself becomes a trap? What if he starts to mess up not because he's a yutz but because the public mistakes the PR Hancock for the real guy? Maybe they have him busy opening a shopping mall and missing the BIG PLOT TO CAUSE AN EARTHQUAKE or something that the old cranky Hancock would have easily seen. What if Ray's PR is so successful that Hancock's publicity is taken over by a larger company (BAD GUY ALERT) without such pure and trusting motives for him...or the public?

Yes, the story of a hero's rise and fall all due to the love of the public - and the manipulations of the "hero machine" - is all a bit cliche, but the story manages to avoid that through the first act. With the same imagination put to this story through its conclusion, we might have seen Hancock learn that good public relations involves more than just sticking to the's about having character. We'd have seen Hancock apply this character against the people who are trying to manipulate him for their personal gain. We'd see Hancock do his heroic altruistic shtick not because he's board or wants acceptance, but because he truly feels the pain of the people he saves (maybe, in the end, Hancock's enemy's are out to smear his good name: and he has to sacrifice his hard-won popularity in order to truly do what's right, and save the city).

The fact that he doesn't learn this - that the story's deux ex machina saves him not only from the logical conclusion of the first act but also his deserved character arch - gives us only one real bad guy to root against. And this one doesn't even appear in the movie.

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