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You really ought to dial it back a bit: (l-r) Bateman and Smith in Hancock.

The Anti-Superhero

By Laura Leon

Hancock

Directed by Peter Berg

What a great idea: a superhero who possesses neither the looks, the dignity, the modesty nor powers of, say, Superman or Batman, but who instead is a repulsive alcoholic with an acid tongue. When this guy—Hancock (Will Smith)—sets out to save the world (or at least rid the L.A. freeway of some gang-bangers), he gets the job done to the tune of millions of dollars in property damage and personal-injury lawsuits. He’s the kind of hero who, when you’re trapped in a car on a railroad track as a train comes hauling toward you, you pray will be able to save you without killing you. Such is the concern of PR guy Ray (Jason Bateman), who, having brushed off the debris and crossed himself, has the presence of mind to thank his rescuer when everybody else is lambasting him for, once again, having wrought havoc. Ray is so thankful, in fact, that he brings Hancock home to supper, much to wife Mary’s (Charlize Theron) considerable annoyance, and, for dessert, he maps out a marketing campaign to salvage the detested superhero’s image.

So far, so good. Watching Ray coach the snarly Hancock on how to say “Thank you” and “Good job,” even to those who might not deserve it, is almost as hilarious as watching Hancock, in a tight rubber suit, try to put the lesson into action. Hollywood has long showed delight in mocking the very image-mongering industry that, of course, is its bread and butter. For brief early stretches of the movie, this works to its advantage. Unfortunately, writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan veer off course, injecting weird vibes between Mary and Hancock, and, worse, introducing very farfetched (even for this kind of movie) supernatural backstories that caused my 12-year-old, 10-year-old and me to wonder what in the world they were talking about. At some point, we just gave up and gave in to to the second half of the movie, which is a grand series of pavement-crunching fights between Hancock and some warped inmates bent on revenge.

Smith is very good in a role that is a huge stretch from his usual highly likeable persona. In fact, he seems to embrace the opportunity to play something other than noble and charismatic, and he shows his considerable skill—up to the point that the movie gets lost in weirdness. Theron, too, is wonderful, even though, at first, she seems mere window dressing, the angelic wife and helpmate. It’s nice to see her once again showing off her considerable sex appeal, in such a way as to strengthen her performance. And Bateman is typically droll and engaging, ultimately an empathetic character who seems just as much at a loss to explain what’s happening as we in the audience are. As summer entertainment, Hancock will have a hard time competing against more straightforward crash-and-burns such as the upcoming Hellboy 2, and it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers couldn’t stick to the original premise and just see where it took them. If anything, it’s further proof, if any were needed, that Will Smith is more than the sum of his parts. Too bad it’s not much else.

Petty Larceny

Flawless

Directed by Michael Radford

Director Michael Radford is an odd duck. Though his films have, on occasion, been nominated for a gang of Oscars—remember the almost-too-sweet romantic comedy Il Postino?—critics mostly ignore him. He has moved from genre to genre with a journeyman’s curiosity, making small art-house films that usually attract audiences but not much notice: White Mischief was a sly look at British colonialism; 1984 was a decent adaptation of Orwell’s novel, as notable for its use of contemporary London as its fine performances by John Hurt and Richard Burton; and Il Postino, though hindered by the obvious fact that the lead actor was very ill (and died right after filming), was an interesting meditation on the way art informs a “good” life.

Since Radford is usually more interested in character than plot, he’s an odd choice to direct a caper film like Flawless. Set in 1960 London, the story is about Laura Quinn (Demi Moore), an unfairly passed-over diamond-cartel executive, and the criminal alliance she makes with a canny janitor, Mr. Hobbs (Michael Caine).

The first part of the film is right up Radford’s alley, as we see the slights, large and small, that Laura endures. Ignored in meetings, passed over for promotion, Moore tends to signal her character’s frustration almost exclusively in clouds of cigarette smoke and a very angry walk. (She’s not as hopeless an actress as she used to be, but she hasn’t exactly become Meryl Streep, either.) As Hobbs, Caine plays up an ingratiating old-coot persona that “his betters” accept without blinking, masking a rage that will prove their undoing—and provide the film with its central mystery.

The caper scenes are handled efficiently. First, Moore must retrieve some info from her boss’ palatial home; then, Caine must complete the theft. What’s really pleasing is that when the big twist arrives (you know that a caper film needs a head-shaking twist to be really enjoyable), it’s completely satisfying.

Less satisfying is the motivation for the theft. (The dramatic effect is also blunted by the film’s clumsy framing device, which presents Moore in old-age makeup, telling the story in flashback.) It seems small for such an outrageous crime, though, come to think of it, it fits perfectly into Radford’s personal, smaller-scale cinematic outlook.

—Shawn Stone


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