Monday, April 5, 2010
Hancock (2008) – written by Vincent Ngo, directed by Peter Berg, starring Will Smith
(It was raining all day and I watched this at home on my TV. My favourite kind of expensive movie involves science fiction fastened to contemporary reality. Though it only received 42 % approval rating on the Tomatometer, that's a number that often works well for me. I always figure that means politics were involved and split the vote. I figured I would like it and I did. After I finished watching it, I watched the good parts again.)
This 2008 movie is a lot like the 1942 movie Casablanca. It focuses on practical altruism and consists of a drunk hero, an angel hero and a good man hero. These characters are compelled towards each other and towards good works. In both centuries, the drunk is upset with the angel for letting him believe for so long that he was alone in the world.
Instead of being in opposition to the Nazis etc., the Hancock characters are in opposition to plain old criminals, to devastating loss in people's private lives, and to the banal evils of pharmaceutical companies. None of these heroes are very interested in public appreciation and all of them are generous in giving the criminals/ outsiders/ pharmaceutical companies a healthy benefit of the doubt before they let their pride or righteousness have a go. The forces of opposition are barely a threat to these super strong characters; so the characters themselves, satisfyingly, become the main force of action and their own worst enemies – struggles among the gods. They are also the primary joke tellers.
In Casablanca, the only way the drunk can become worthy of the angel's love again is to send her away on a plane with the good man while he, the drunk, remains on the ground in the fog. The angel’s love will help the good man make the world a better place. It is a resonating paradox conceived by the sobered drunk to the shock but silent admiration of the angel and to the oblivion but safety of the good man.
Luckily, Hancock is 21st century science fiction and is not so romantic. Here, actions are transparent and choices are made in consensus. The drunk doesn’t send the angel away, the drunk and the angel move away from each other because it turns out they are physically weaker together – less useful and more prone to injury. (We all sort of understand that an angel and a drunk are enormously more of a pain in the ass than an angel and a good man.) It is less of a sacrifice of one’s destiny for the greater good than a reasonable choice for one's own health and happiness. Here, destiny is something that goes on and on and is as predictable as gravity; the choices made against it become the small mysteries. In Hancock, the intimacy of friendship between three people is as compelling and as full of depth as Casablanca's private romantic love between two people.
In Hancock, the good man (who is a public relations man) helps the drunk (who is a superhero) improve his low-on-public-approval image to the city. This accomplishment is achieved early on in the movie. Though this change has useful benefits, for instance the drunk is less of an overt asshole to the people whose lives he is saving and he is also breaking less stuff, it becomes obvious that this is not the main point of the movie. It's pretty obvious from the beginning that he is generally a good person who is just having a hard time in his very long life . We see that the change in public perception doesn't change his heart at all.
That's the thing about being an altruistic asshole - you don't worry so much when your path doesn't correspond to public approval ratings and it doesn't move you so much when it does. We see a group of civilians around the drunk, applauding him for the first time in years after he saves several lives in a bank robbery (a typical act for him) while simultaneously not offending the victims, the police or the public (the new part). He tries to smile in gratitude to the applause, to be decent, but his looks like a smile of an alien trying to blend in on its second day on earth, the inevetiable and unintentional mockery of the human smile. Sometimes a disinterest in public approval is for the best and sometimes it's for the worst, it's always hard to know when to listen and when not to. But it is probably always for the best to try to not break so much stuff along the way.
It's pretty interesting to watch a character in a Hollywood movie undergo the most typical Hollywood character transition, only for us to then be shown how shallow that transition is for the character. But we are just at the halfway point here, we are just getting started. It turns out that it's very moving to see a character like that, this drunk, go after something deeper.