Since the days of the Borscht Belt comics, a rimshot has been shorthand for "You just heard something funny" (cf. "wah wah wah waaaaah"). There's a moment in Hancock—Will Smith's new movie about a boozy superman looking for redemption—where director Peter Berg (perhaps at the behest of his hands-on-everything star) uses a sort of rimshot to punctuate the film's biggest laugh: a swatch of the Sanford & Son theme. Smith's African-American audience might take particular pleasure in this coded moment: a former sitcom star himself, Smith might as well be saying, "I've come a long way baby." No longer limited by TV strictures, movie star Smith gives himself a little bit more room to be the bad boy in Hancock.
But like Redd Foxx on network TV, Smith is in a kind of creative straightjacket. He's not really interested in pushing boundaries—at least not without bringing his hand to his lips, shrugging, and saying "Oopsie. I've been a bad boy." He's a committed superstar, a businessman before he is an artist (um, not that there's anything wrong with it). Just listen to his explanation for his success, as told to USA Today: "Nine out of the top 10 biggest movies of all times have special effects; eight out of 10 have creatures in them; seven out of 10 have a love story. So if you want a hit, you might want to throw those in the mix. I just study patterns and try to stand where lightning strikes."
That kind of thinking explains why America baaaahs its way to the box office, but it also gives some insight into why Hancock starts so promisingly and then goes so horribly wrong. At the film's outset, we meet Smith's titular superhero sleeping off a hangover on a Los Angeles city bench. He's roused to action in a sequence that find him flying drunk and apprehending a gang of thieves, but in spectacularly and unnecessarily destructive fashion that adds up to over $9 million in damages. At once, the premise spoofily nods to the seldom-addressed practical complications of a world with superheroes (how flying means batting birds out of the way and dodging planes, the cost of rebuilding hero-and-villain-blasted streets, like those of Harlem in The Incredible Hulk) and, as did the recent Jumper, questions the odd modern-mythic assumptions that super-powered individuals would want to do good, and be good at doing it.
Hancock is a man who does what the hell he wants—whom is going to stop him? And yet, after some goading to save the day, Hancock acquiesces and fights crime, seemingly out of boredom (oddly, there's never a scene explaining why Hancock is a hero at all—perhaps Smith's casting is meant to be enough). Meanwhile, the decidedly un-super PR man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman, also an escapee from Sitcom-land) is "trying to change the world" with the Allheart initiative. It's a wonderful and unfortunately naïve concept whereby large corporations could take pride in allocating huge portions of their record profits to bettering the world (in-joke alert: producers Michael Mann and Akiva Goldsman are among the scoffing boardroom executives; later, former Chicago Hope star Berg cameos as an ER doctor).
A chance encounter brings Hancock and Ray together. It's kismet: Hancock has serious image trouble, and Ray sees an opportunity to use his own skills to better the community. And so the two study YouTube videos of Hancock's exploits, and discuss ways "to better interface with the public," starting with not leaving giant potholes wherever he launches and lands. Bottom line: he's an "asshole," and he needs to check himself before he wrecks himself. (In the film's laziest set of jokes, Hancock is set off by the word "asshole," a gag last used to good effect in 1985's Back to the Future.) Ray's irrepressible goodwill finds a contrast not only in Hancock, but Ray's clearly skeptical wife Mary (Charlize Theron, welcome but mishandled). Bateman's understated mein is again put to very funny effect here, as when he levelly asks his testy wife, "Do you want him to kill us all?"
For the film's first half, everything clicks. Smith is giving one of his very best performances, with a soulfully weary demeanor and a clear understanding of what makes his bad-boy behavior funny. But the film isn't satisfied with being a funny, slightly subversive comedy. It would've been enough for a good (perhaps even classic) mass entertainment if Hancock simply followed through on the conflict it initially raises and considered more farcical variations on it. I even would've accepted the Capra version of the story, with a serious depression before all ending well. But where Hancock goes in its misguided second half can only be explained by the kind of fear and desperation that hangs on a $150 million movie. A twist is a fine, but this one? The second half gets so worked up over itself that Hancock becomes nearly unrecognizable as the movie we were all enjoying twenty minutes earlier.
Along with a plot turn (related to Hancock's amnesia), the film gets cutesy, focuses on a bizarre mythology that doesn't pass the "suspension of disbelief" test, and goes into a tonal and aesthetic kamikaze tailspin: even the special effects take a turn for the worse. In doing so, the script (credited to Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan, but undoubtedly "polished" by Goldsman) squanders its creative energy in a wild-goose-chase for another of those "patterns" that send movies into the Top 10. When it was just about Will Smith as a superhero with the personality of W.C. Fields, Hancock was plenty of fun (though does the snide kid he bullies have to be French?). Then the movie about a superhero who hasn't been trying hard enough becomes a movie that tries too hard.