Movie Reviews - 2000s postsMonday June 24, 2013
Movie Review: Hollywoodland (2006)
“Hollywoodland” begins with a point-of-view shot of soaring through clouds, a la Superman, then quickly plummets to Earth and Hollywood, Calif., on June 16, 1959, the day George Reeves, TV’s most famous Superman, was found with a bullet in his head. Did he kill himself? Was he murdered? Was it an accident?
The movie suggests all three. It’s less detective story than character study. It’s the story of two men, neither of whom is super. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a marginal private investigator scraping by in Los Angeles in 1959, and George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is a marginal actor scraping by in Los Angeles in the early 1950s. Neither is happy where they are. Both insinuate themselves into situations where they’re not wanted: Simo into the Reeves investigation, Reeves into the tabloid photos of more famous stars. Both men rely on the pocketbooks of older women. For Simo, it’s Reeves’ mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), who refuses to believe the official police report that her son killed himself. For Reeves, it’s Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), with whom he has an affair throughout the ’50s.
Both men are looking for an opportunity, too: their chance, their shot. Only Reeves really gets it. He just doesn’t recognize it.
A never-ending battle
From 1939 to 1950, George Reeves appeared in more than 50 films, ranging from Pool Player #1 in a sex hygiene short to the male lead in the World War II-era “So Proudly We Hail!” He also had a bit part in the biggest movie of all time, “Gone with the Wind,” playing Brent Tarleton, one of Scarlett’s early suitors. It was all so close. But by 1950 he was 36, and grasping at what he could. One offer was a dual role in a TV show about a comic-book superhero in cape and tights. He went with it, assuming it wouldn’t be picked up. It was.
He found the “Adventures of Superman” ridiculous. Basically he got trapped by circumstances into playing a character he didn’t like and then got trapped by that character since no one could see him as anything else. There’s a great scene where he’s with friends at an early screening of “From Here to Eternity,” in which he has a supporting role. But this is a year into the six-year run of “Adventures of Superman,” and as soon as he appears onscreen, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jawing with Burt Lancaster, the crowd buzzes, then titters, then various wags shout out Superman-related lines: “Faster than a speeding bullet!” etc. It breaks the mood, and Fred Zinnemann, the director, turns toward the projection booth and makes a scissors motion. Most of Reeves’ work winds up on the cutting-room floor.
You’re this, the world was telling Reeves, and only this. And then he wasn’t even that. The show wasn’t picked up for a seventh season, a directing deal fell through, and Reeves was left to scramble. Would he take a role in professional wrestling? We watch 8mm footage of him trying out moves but betrayed by body and age. He leaves Toni for a younger woman, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney)—who, ironically, has the same “L.L.” initials as all of Superman’s girlfriends—and suffers recriminations from both women. Leonore thought he was a star but he’s fallen. Toni stomps on him there.
“Have you seen yourself, George?” Toni says to him. “Your face is going. Here. Your eyes, your hair, your stomach. You think no one notices?”
Then she gets mean:
Toni: You want publicity? You’ll get it. I’ll say you’re a red. And a faggot. A lush. Nobody can call that a lie.
Reeves (angry): You know what? You never helped me. You never helped me. You could’ve talked to Eddie. You could’ve gotten me something but you didn’t! Because you liked me where I was in a fucking red suit! You liked that! Well, that’s not who I am, you understand? Goddamn you.
Toni (sweetly): But George, that’s all you were good for. 10 year-olds and shut-ins. That was the best you were ever going to be. I knew that. Why didn’t you?
Sure, Diane Lane is stellar, but has Ben Affleck ever been this good? At this post-Bennifer point in his career he was coming off a string of laughable movies, including “Gigli,” “Surviving Christmas,” and his own turn as a superhero, “Daredevil.” He was trapped, all of which was good prep for playing Reeves, and he brings a matter-of-fact pathos to the character. The irony of Reeves’ existence weighs upon his mighty shoulders. Reeves plays the world’s most powerful man even though he has no power. The final irony, about the speeding bullet, comes too late.
If Superman is wish fulfillment for kids then George Reeves is identification for adults. Most of us never wind up where we want to be. Most of us assume roles (pharmacist, plumber, real estate agent) that define us and trap us. Then even that role, through age, circumstance, and technological advances, is taken away from us, too.
Not truth, not justice
The Reeves half of “Hollywoodland” is powerful and reverberates long after the movie is over. The other half, the fictional half, is boilerplate. Simo is not a nice man, but through his research into Reeves’ life and death he comes to an epiphany. He takes the lesson of Reeves’ life and applies it to his own. But what’s the lesson? Be happy where you are? Don’t lie so much? Don’t string your clients along? Don’t show up drunk at your kid’s school?
That’s part of the problem with the movie. Sure, Simo scrambles after his next best chance. But he scrambles because he has to make a living. So where does the epiphany leave him? Not scrambling? Going into a different line of work?
“Hollywoodland,” written by Paul Bernbaum and directed by Allen Coulter, was going to be called “Truth, Justice and the American Way” until Warner Bros., putting out their own Superman movie that year, intervened. But elements of the original title are still in the movie. To corral Reeves’ mother as a client, Simo taps the lurid headline about her son’s suicide and says, “You need a headline this big … only with the truth.” Except he doesn’t believe it’s the truth. When another client, who has long suspected his wife of adultery, kills her with three bullets to the head, heart and groin, he tells Simo, “I hope you’ve learned the meaning of justice.” Except it’s not justice.
So not truth and not justice. Just the American way.
Movie Review: Superman Returns (2006)
This is one ballsy movie. No pun intended.
In 2006, Bryan Singer, with nothing but success behind him (“The Usual Suspects,” the “X-Men” movies), directed the Superman movie he always wanted to see: a continuation of the Christopher Reeve version that jettisons the awful ’83 Richard Pryor vehicle and the ’87 Golan and Globus abomination, and adds intrigue and depth to where we left off in ’81.
He picks up on the storyline. In “Superman II,” Superman beds Lois. Now, six or so years later, she has a child. Hey, could it…? It could.
He returns Jor-El (Marlon Brando) to us. The Salkinds taketh, Singer giveth back.
He picks up on the Jesus metaphor. Superman dies, is reborn, and ascends. Well, he flies anyway. “I am with you always,” Jesus said at the end. “I’m always around,” Superman says at the end.
We get some of the great lines from the first movie—“Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel”—as well as the resounding John Williams score in all its iterations. For a moment, as Superman and Lois flew around town, I thought, “OK, so everything but ‘Can You Read My Mind.’” But then they pass Lois’ house, and the camera focuses on their hands, holding in flight, and we get a strain, a suggestion; then suddenly the whole thing wells up again as her love for him wells up again. Because you don’t get the love theme until you get the love.
All of this is ballsy for obvious reasons. We live in a throwaway culture and Singer was involved in the greatest recycling project in movie history. Hollywood gears its product toward 12-to-14-year-olds and Singer was determined to make a sequel to a movie released 25 years earlier. He ignored the original’s third and fourth iterations as if he could rewrite movie history. “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick told Gatsby, to which Gatsby responded “Why, of course you can!” Singer is Gatsby in this regard.
And, like Gatsby, his project was doomed.
Start with the casting. Brandon Routh makes a good Clark Kent/Superman but he has the misfortune of following the greatest superhero casting ever. Routh is actually several years older than Christopher Reeve was when Reeve was cast as the Man of Steel, but he looks younger. Except it’s supposed to be six years later. Is Superman aging backwards? Like Benjamin Button?
The casting of Lois Lane is worse. Kate Bosworth was 22 when they filmed this. And she has a 5-year-old? From a consummation six years earlier? That’s some awkward math. She should’ve been in high school instead of, you know, reporting for The Daily Planet and shacking up with Supes in the Fortress of Solitude. We have laws, dude.
Kidder and Reeve were adults in a gritty adult world—New York in the 1970s—but these two look like kids and act like kids. Why the world doesn’t need Superman? Really, Lois? She can’t even let go of her anger to be the star reporter she is. The biggest scoop of the year—Superman returns—shows up on the Daily Planet rooftop and she frowns her way through the interview. Her first question is about where he’s been all this time. He says there was a chance Krypton was still there. “I had to see for myself,” he says.
Imagine you’re a reporter. What’s your follow-up?
- “So was it still there?”
- “What about kryptonite? Were you in danger?”
- “Why didn’t you tell anyone you were leaving?”
This is Lois’ follow-up: “Well, you’re back. And everyone seems to be pretty happy about it.”
That’s not even a question. Then we get this awful dialogue:
Superman: I read the article, Lois.
Lois: So did a lot of people.
Superman: Why did you write it?
Lois [upset]: How could you leave us like that? [Throws up hands.] I moved on. So did the rest of us. That’s why I wrote it. The world doesn’t need a savior. And neither do I.
I’m not sure who’s being more childish here. Lois assumes her pain is the world’s, her resentments ours. And him. He can’t get past the fact that she wrote the article? That she was angry that he left for five years without a word? What is he—a Vulcan?
It gets worse when they’re about to fly together:
Lois: You know my… Richard. He’s a pilot. He takes me up all the time.
Superman: Not like this.
Who knew Superman was so insecure? You can feel his insecurity throughout the movie. He basks in the applause from the baseball crowd and listens to news reports about himself with a smile. He’s the mightiest being on the planet, the savior of the world, and he’s checking press clippings. Does he Google himself? Read the comments below YouTube clips? “SuperDORK more like! Go back to Krypton, Creepton. LOL.”
He spends so much time worrying about what Lois is thinking and feeling, and with whom she’s thinking and feeling it, he doesn’t put together the fairly obvious pieces of the plot. Let’s see…
- Lex Luthor is out of jail.
- Kryptonian crystals from the Fortress of Solitude are missing.
- The east coast has suffered a massive blackout that includes cellphones.
It’s even Clark’s job to be covering the blackout story. It’s the story Lois wants, it’s the one Clark gets, but it’s still Lois who uncovers it. She finds its epicenter, finds the boat, “The Gertrude,” anchored there, slips aboard with her son, then comes across Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) brushing his teeth. “Lois Lane?” he says with a mouthful of toothpaste. It’s one of the few times Luthor makes us laugh in the movie.
No obvious metaphor here. Keep moving.
I hate carping like this. I actually think “Superman Returns” is one of the better cinematic incarnations of the Man of Steel, so I want to say the positive. But I keep returning to the things that bug me.
I love it when Lois tells Superman “I forgot how warm you are.” That’s so evocative. This notion that the Man of Steel, instead of being cold like steel, is warmer than us. As if he absorbs more of the sun than we do. Then this:
Superman: What do you hear?
Superman: I hear everything.
You’re immediately struck by the burden of that. But it backfires. You think: Wait. If he can hear everything, why spend so much time being Clark Kent? Why is he hanging at a bar with Jimmy Olsen (Sam Huntington) and Bo the Bartender (Jack Larson, the Jimmy Olsen of the 1950s)? Why isn’t he out saving all of the people he can hear being beaten, murdered, and raped? Why save some dingbat in a car or bother to stop that bank robber—a guy so stupid he: 1) robs a bank; 2) in Metropolis; 3) the day after Superman returns? And if you’re going to stop the dude, why walk up to him and allow him to keep firing? Bryan Singer wants to show us that even Superman’s eyes are invulnerable but he could’ve done it without making Superman seem like an ass.
There’s a nice scene when Supes lands with a sonic boom—boom!—on the new Krypton continent in the Atlantic Ocean, and fissures develop. And yet … I mean, if he can hear everything, surely he knows where Luthor and his men are. He can hear them breathing. They’re there, there and there. Pick them off. Instead he lands dramatically, with the fissures, and lets his enemies gather.
And how does he not feel all of his powers draining away? If I landed somewhere, and lost 99% of my power in two steps, I think I’d know it. Don’t even get me started on the horror of watching Superman get his ass kicked. There are a lot of painful moments in these movies—the post-reveal dialogue with Lois in “II,” being upstaged by an unfunny Richard Pryor in “III,” all of “IV”—but, for me, the beating of Superman in “Superman Returns” might be the most painful. It’s so brutal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it killed the movie at the box office. Who wants to re-watch a helpless Superman getting his ass kicked by Luthor and his men? Nobody. Superman returned but we didn’t.
OK, then how about the airplane rescue scene? Wow, right? And an homage to the helicopter scene in “I.” Yet why does the original work and the homage not? Is it that the helicopter scene is about revelation (the first appearance of Superman) while this is about return? Is the original rooted in the everyday, the gritty, while this feels like so much CGI? And did the landing have to be in the middle of a baseball stadium? The length of the scene doesn’t help. In “Superman,” from the moment he turns into Superman to “Statistically speaking… ” takes about one and a half minutes of screentime. In “Superman Returns,” it takes five and a half minutes of screentime. It just keeps going.
Second-to-last son of Krypton
I like him lifting the kryptonite-laden continent on his shoulders, like Atlas, pushing it into space, then falling back to Earth. The scenes at the hospital are good, too. But it still takes Lois forever to tell him Jason is his son. She should’ve told him as soon as she entered the room. Hell, she should’ve told him as soon as he returned from Krypton. Seriously, what kind of woman withholds that information? From both men? And that’s your heroine? It’s not a bad idea, certainly, having Lois marry Richard White (James Marsden), but it ruins the greatest love triangle in superherodom. Lois loves Superman and ignores Clark because she doesn’t see what’s super in him. It’s the story every man tells himself about every unrequited love. It’s poignant in that way. Here, Lois kinda loves, or certainly appreciates, Richard White, to whom she’s married, but really loves Superman, who’s always around. Sometimes he’s just outside their house, listening in. Right. That’s a little less poignant.
So let me end with two scenes I appreciate without qualification.
The first is the scene outside the hospital, where Ma Kent (Eva Marie Saint) stands with the crowd, unable to visit her dying son because no one knows he’s her son. That’s heartbreaking. It’s also reminiscent of what gay men went through in the age of AIDS. No way Bryan Singer didn’t make that connection.
The second is the moment Superman tells a sleeping Jason something Jor-El told him as a baby—as Kal-El slept on Krypton for the last time:
You will be different. Sometimes you'll feel like an outcast. But you'll never be alone. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father and the father the son.
It brings cohesion to the whole Donner/Singer enterprise, and to this movie in particular. Superman traveled to Krypton to discover he was its last son. Then he traveled back to Earth to find out he wasn’t. He went searching for Krypton but found it in his own backyard.
The son becomes the father.
Movie Review: The Hunting of the President (2004)
The extent to which Eric Alterman’s famous rejoinder “What Liberal Media?” is correct is indicated by how many leftists are flocking to the documentary form to get their message across. In the last few months we’ve seen leftist critiques of corporate pathology (“The Corporation”), McDonald’s (“Super Size Me”), the Bush Administration (“Fahrenheit 911”), and the Iraq War and the mainstream media (“Control Room”). Waiting in the wings are docs about FOX News (“Outfoxed”) and senior Bush advisor Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”). if the mainstream media were truly liberal, wouldn't folks just turn on their TV sets for this? Wouldn't we just wait for Katie Couric to report?
Now there’s “The Hunting of the President,” a documentary about what Hilary Clinton famously called “the vast right-wing conspiracy” against President Clinton. It was written and directed by Nickolas Perry, who helped edit several Clinton promo films (“A Place Called America”), and Harry Thomason, a Clinton confidante who directed several Clinton promo films (“Legacy”; “Hilary 2000”). Objectivity is not expected.
Were Clinton’s enemies at best unethical and at worst illegal? The film starts in Arkansas, where Larry Case and Larry Nichols were freelance operatives who provided lurid details to visiting big-city journalists. About L.A. Times reporter Bill Rempel, who helped break the “Troopergate” story, Case brags: “I pulled him in like a trophy trout.” The troopers themselves, according to the doc, had suspect motivations, ranging from money to revenge, while their unofficial stage-manager, Cliff Jackson, was an Arkansas lawyer and former Clinton classmate, who was supposedly motivated by envy.
In D.C., meanwhile, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded “American Spectator” magazine and The Arkansas Project, both of which fanned the flames of rumor and innuendo long enough to attract the interest of the mainstream media. In this way, Troopergate led to Paula Jones. Then Vincent Foster died and a scandal was born. Then there was the whole Whitewater wrangle, which never went away despite the fact that journalists complained to their editors, “There’s no there there.”
It was Whitewater that caused Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint Special Counsel Robert Fiske, a moderate Republican lawyer, to investigate the matter. When Congress reauthorized the Independent Counsel Act six months later, Fiske was pushed out, replaced by Ken Starr, who was less moderate.
Indeed, in the doc, Starr’s team comes across as bullies, threatening and urging people to lie under oath.
Unfortunately, most of “Hunting” still amounts to “he said-she said.” What’s new here? Mea culpas from the press, and commentary from former “Spectator” star David Brock (“Blinded By the Right”), who gives insight into the inner-workings of Clinton’s enemies.
The last third of the film is devoted to its most important issue: How this right-wing mudslinging came to dominate the post-Watergate, post-cable TV media. The most damning talking head may be Dan Moldea, author of several books debunking conspiracy theories of both the left and right, who calls the press coverage of the Vincent Foster case, “The most corrupt act of journalism I have ever seen.”
Poet W.H. Auden once referred to the 1930s as “a low dishonest decade,” and it’s not a bad epitaph for the nineties either. We were not a serious people. President Clinton had personal failings, many of his opponents were noisy buffoons, and the press listened to them and we all tuned in. Meanwhile, enemies gathered elsewhere.
-- Originally published in The Seattle Times, 2004.
Movie Review: Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2004)
Daniel Anker’s “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” is essentially split into two parts: how Nazi Germany was presented on Hollywood screens before the war (barely), and how the Holocaust was depicted on Hollywood screens after the war (ditto). But the question that haunts the documentary is this: to what extent can the Holocaust be recreated or depicted at all? Yes, one must never forget. Yes, one must bear witness. But how do you turn the great tragedy of the 20th century into entertainment?
The first example of how badly this can go was an episode of the television show, “This is Your Life,” from May 1953. The guest was the first Holocaust survivor to be interviewed on national television: Hanna Bloch Kohner. Why was she chosen? The documentary doesn’t say, but this article by Kohner’s daughter, Julie, makes it clear: Hanna’s husband was the agent for Ralph Edwards, the host of “This Is Your Life”; and once he heard Hanna’s story, and no doubt saw how pretty she was, the show found a way, as narrator Gene Hackman tells us, “to package the Holocaust for mass consumption.”
Here’s what Edwards says in his smooth, pleased-with-itself, radio announcer’s voice:
Looking at you, it’s hard to believe, that during seven short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror, and tragedy. You look like a young American girl out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.
Special guests/reunions include a fellow concentration camp inmate:
It was your friend and companion from four concentration camps. Now fate was kind to her, too, for she lives here in Hollywood: Eva Hertzberg, now Mrs. Warner Forsheim!
Worst of all? This conversation:
Edwards: You were each given a case of soap and a towel, weren’t you, Hanna?
Hanna [laughs slightly]: I don’t remember the soap.
Edwards: Well, you were sent to the so-called showers. [Hanna bows head.] Even this was a doubtful procedure because some showers had regular water, others had liquid gas. And you never knew which one you were being sent to. You and Eva were fortunate, others were not so fortunate, including your father and mother, and your husband, Carl Benjamin. They all lost their lives at Auschwitz.
It’s not just the words but the voice. He could be selling cars or hot dogs between innings of a baseball game. Instead he’s telling us of a tragedy so great, of cruelty so institutionalized and mechanized, that it obliterates the possibility of God. Tone is so at odds with subject matter as to seem the work of a madman.
“You were sent to the so-called showers...”
American moviegoers got their first sense of the Holocaust in May 1945, when the newsreels showed graphic footage of the concentration and extermination camps, including, as historian Michael Berenbaum says here, “the bulldozers of Bergen-Belsen shoveling the bodies into mass graves.” Such footage also appeared in Orson Welles’ “The Stranger,” from 1946, about a Nazi war criminal living in Connecticut, but Anker ignores the film. Instead we get the two 1947 films on anti-Semitism, “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” along with a clip of “The Search” (1948), starring Montgomery Clift as an American GI trying to unite two Auschwitz survivors. We get “Singing in the Dark” (1956), starring Moishe Oysher as a Holocaust survivor with amnesia, but not “The Juggler” (1953), starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor in Israel. “Exodus,” the big-budget, All-Star cast film from 1960, goes unmentioned, too.
Generally, in the first few decades after the war, Hollywood dealt with the Holocaust only when its hand was forced by other media. The popularity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as both book and Broadway play, led to the scrubbed1950s movie version, starring model, and WASP, Millie Perkins. Television showed us “Judgment at Nuremberg” before Stanley Kramer directed his Oscar-nominated version.
Then came “Holocaust,” the nine-hour miniseries from 1978 that followed in the wake of “Roots,” and to which, we’re told, “One in every two Americans tuned in.” It went abroad, to West Germany, where it was shocking news to a younger generation, and where it led the German government to extend statute of limitations on Nazi war criminals. “In Germany they told a joke,” Berenbaum says, “about the docudrama ‘Holocaust.’ They said it had more impact than the original.”
Objections came. “TV and Theresienstadt are not compatible,” wrote Elie Wiesel in The New York Times. He called the project morally objectionable and indecent. Others complained about the soap-opera nature of the storyline, and to the fact that there were any commercials at all. “It’s not that it was bad,” says Rabbi Wolfe Kelman in a clip from an NBC Special Report, “Holocaust: a Postscript.” “It’s that it wasn’t good enough.”
But it led to the documentary “Kitty: Return to Auschwitz” (1979) and the feature film Sophie’s Choice” (1983) and to yet another mini-series, “Winds of War” (1988). And all the while, questions. Can you bear proper witness without being graphic? Can you be graphic without being exploitative? Steven Spielberg argues for “graphic” (during histrionic scenes of “Winds of War”) even as film critic Neal Gabler praises Spielberg for his restraint in “Schindler’s List.”
The debate in “Imaginary Witness,” unfortunately, isn’t at a high level. “Schindler’s List” is treated as the pinnacle in Holocaust depiction—the acclaimed, Oscar-winning film from Hollywood’s most popular director—but the doc never delves into its controversy. David Mamet, for one, in his essay, “The Jew for Export,” called it melodrama. He said it was destructive and its lesson a lie:
Members of the audience learn nothing save the emotional lesson of all melodrama, that they are better than the villain.
Gabler talks up “the casualness of the violence” in “Schindler’s List,” a rework of “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s phrase from the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1963. But, to me, “The Pianist” (2002), directed by Roman Polanski, a survivor, gets at this much better than Spielberg, a suburban kid from Arizona, ever did.
“The Pianist,” unfortunately, is a blip here, in part because it’s not a true Hollywood production, and the doc, per its title, focuses on Hollywood. I wanted to go beyond Hollywood. I wanted to see what other countries were doing. I wanted clips from “Ostatni etap,” a 1948 black-and-white Polish drama about a woman sent to Auschwitz, and “Nuit et brouillard” (1955), the powerful, half-hour documentary from Alain Resnais and poet Jean Cayrol, which was the only Holocaust documentary produced anywhere in the world during the 1950s. “Shoah” (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s 9 1/2 hour documentary-to-end-all-documentaries, goes unmentioned as well.
According to Wikipedia, 174 narrative films worldwide have been made about the Holocaust in some form—focusing on survivors, a search for Nazi war criminals, or recreating the camps themselves—and I could’ve done with a five-minute survey of some of these, and less talk from, say, Prof. Annette Insdorf, who always sounds excruciatingly helpful in explaining the most obvious thoughts.
“Imaginary Witness” is a good beginner’s guide to its subject. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that it’s not good enough.
Movie Review: Hancock (2008)
It’s the stupidity, stupid.
“Hancock” has a great premise. What if a superhero isn’t a super guy? What if he’s a bit of a drunk and a jerk? What if he causes as much damage as he tries to prevent?
It’s got a great star in Will Smith. You can almost see him turning down, or off, his usual cinematic charm. His Hancock stumbles around in perpetual hangover. He can barely keep his eyes open. What for? What does the world have to offer? What does he have to offer the world? More trouble. Better to shut it out with sleep or drink.
But the movie still fails because everyone in it is stupid. I mean everyone.
Presumably all of Los Angeles knows who Hancock is. He seems to be the only superhero in this universe. Yet everyone in the city acts as if they don’t know what this means. Gangbangers shoot him in the back of their car, prisoners surround him thinking 30-to-1 odds are in their favor, and civilians keep calling him an asshole even though they know this is his trigger word. That’s most of the movie, really: other characters acting surprised when the superhero turns out to be super.
Our main secondary character, Ray (Jason Bateman), is stupid. Sure, he decides to pay back Hancock, who saved his life with the stunt on the railroad tracks, by using his public-relations expertise, such as it is, to help Hancock’s image problem. And it works, more or less. He brings the two groups, Hancock and his public, closer together in mutual admiration. At the same time, he’s pitching an idea to corporations, that All-Heart thingy, that’s slightly insane. He’s offering corporations nothing for something: an unknown do-gooder symbol in exchange for profits. Somehow he gets into boardrooms to make this pitch. Given human nature, let alone corporate nature, there’s more Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasy in his pitch than in any superhero movie ever made.
Mary (Charlize Theron), Ray’s wife, is stupid. She doesn’t want Ray to find out that she too is super, and thousands of years old, and Hancock’s former wife/lover/whatever; so when Hancock, suffering amnesia but inevitably drawn to her, gets too close, she blasts him through the wall of their house. “If Ray finds out about me,” she tells him, “you’re dead.” Then she blames the subsequent gaping hole on Hancock’s sneeze. Subtle. Not to mention another white woman blaming a black man for something she did.
Hey, should we go there? Talk about the missing racial element? Talk about the stories we don’t tell when we whitewash our history?
For most of the movie, Hancock doesn’t know who he is. All he knows is he woke up in a hospital in Miami with tickets to see “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff, in his pocket. He had a concussion. There was no one there to claim him. This is supposedly why he acts the way he does—drinking and all. “What kind of bastard must I have been,” he says at one point, “that nobody was there to claim me?” He’s a super man feeling super sorry for himself.
Then Mary reveals herself and tells him who he is; who they are. “Gods, angels,” she says. “Different cultures call us by different names. Now all of a sudden it’s a ‘superhero.’” Which explains nothing, of course. Do they come from this planet or another? If this one, how are they the way they are? Hancock doesn’t ask. Instead, lonely, he asks, “Are there more of us?” “There used to be, “ she says.
You see, each god/angel/superhero has a partner, and he and Mary were partners. They were inevitably drawn to each other through millennia. But the more time you spend with your partner, the more mortal you become. It’s their kryptonite: togetherness.
At one point, she details the scars on his body. That one came in like 32 B.C., the other when they were attacked in 1850, and finally the blow-to-the-head as they were on their way to see “Frankenstein” in 1932. There, in the hospital, she decided he was better off not knowing, and without her, which is why she abandoned him there. At the same time, it hardly explains her anger now. “I have put up with your bullshit for the last 3,000 years!” she says. What bullshit? Weren’t they in love? Did they fight? Was he a drunk even then? We never find out.
More to the point: Were the two most recent scars the result of racially motivated attacks? How could they not be? An interracial couple in America in 1850? Going on a date in 1932? In Florida? Did they not know where they were and surrounded by whom? But the movie doesn’t raise the issue of race. Racism isn’t escapism. Our racial history is the nightmare from which we are trying to awake ... by going back to sleep.
Even more to the point: The filmmakers missed it: the real story.
The real story isn’t a broken-down Hancock in 2008 “finding himself.” The real story is Hancock, a black man in the American South in the 1930s, waking up in a hospital and wandering off to who knows what. Let’s say his powers return. Let’s say he’s attacked by a group of white men who don’t want this nigger on their streets. Does he kill them? Does word get out, in whispers, in the black community and the white community? When does he begin to identify as black? When white people keep calling him that? When they try to lynch him and castrate him? When black people take him in and feed him? Does he try to stop the lynchings? Does he take on Jim Crow? The Ku Klux Klan? Hitler? Does he know about Emmett Till or the Montgomery bus boycotts or the Nashville sit-ins or the Freedom Rides? Hollywood in 2008 wants to believe you can make any character black, yellow, red or white, and you can, but not if you’re getting deep into American history. That changes everything.
Instead, they ignore the history. Instead, they give us more stupidity. Three prisoners who have already had decisive run-ins with Hancock decide they weren’t decisive enough. They think they can still beat him. “He took your power,” Red (Eddie Marsan) tells the other two, “and now you’ve got to get your power back.” Guess what? They do this just as Hancock is losing his power. Great timing. And it leads to our final, decisive battle, in a hospital, where Hancock, superpowerless, fights back with the help of Mary (ditto), and Ray. The sprinkler system comes on, and we get slow-mo, and operatic music that suggests an ultimate sacrifice is being made.
It isn’t. Hancock isn’t a character but a property, and the people in charge need him alive for potential sequels. So in the end it’s suggested he winds up in New York, a continent away from Mary, who stays with Ray in Los Angeles. Hancock becomes the true superhero we need, or want, or think we want. Again and again and again and again. As if we were running from something.