Who knew that Will Smith could deliver the year’s most unexpected and profoundly moving love story? He plays Ben a man with a deep dark secret that leads him help seven complete strangers each with their own particular set of circumstances. Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle we slowly get clues to the traumatic events that cause Ben to contact these people and change their lives in ways they never could have anticipated. What he doesn’t expect is to fall in love with one of them -- Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) a cardiac patient whose heart may be weak but is clearly strong enough to make a difference in the way Ben looks at things. It’s this relationship that becomes the center of Grant Nieporte’s compelling screenplay but as it continues it’s obvious there is more to what Ben is doing a mystery not revealed until the final moments and one you will not easily forget. Will Smith is at his best. He may be the world’s No. 1 movie star at the moment but he’s continually proving himself to be a brilliant actor as well. Reteaming with director Gabriele Muccino who led him to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in The Pursuit of Happyness Smith once again finds his dramatic mojo in the role of a man whose life has been shattered by something so profoundly affecting that he reaches out to strangers in an effort to redeem himself. You will be hard-pressed to find the loveable Will Smith persona anywhere within this character. Dawson also has a career best as the spunky and courageous Emily a role that could have been sloppily sentimentalized and maudlin. She’s a revelation delivering a flawless and luminous performance. And best among the various recipients of Ben’s kindness is Woody Harrelson as a blind man he encounters. Also quite good is Barry Pepper as Ben’s childhood friend who is the only other person “in” on Ben’s master plan helping him to achieve his goal. He rips your heart out when he gets the call from Ben who says “It’s time.” Gabriele Muccino puts it all out there. He is an unapologetically emotional director and some will probably find fault with his style but as the Italian filmmaker proved in Pursuit of Happyness he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s taking the story. He’s most successful here in building suspense and an air of mystery around Smith’s character and then bringing it all home in a whopper of a final act. Clearly story acting and gut-level feeling are the three things that drive Muccino and his distinctive stamp and European approach is evident throughout. Most of all he has given Smith and Dawson a real showcase finding the meat of a story that’s one from the heart and good for the soul.
Hancock must have sounded great--at least on paper. Hancock (Smith) is the anti-superhero a crime fighter with a bad attitude in contemporary Los Angeles who drinks way too much dresses like skid row and doesn’t give a hoot what anyone thinks about him. Of course since he can fly like Superman stop a speeding train with his fist and take care of just about any badass gang member with his little finger he is invaluable to the police. But the public hates him--so into his life comes PR wizard Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) who is determined to remake Hancock into the image of a hero the city can embrace including getting a spandex outfit. When Hancock comes over to Embrey’s house his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) gets an immediate bad vibe about the guy. There’s good reason and therein lies the film’s big twist which comes at the half-way point of the very tight 92-minute running time. To say much else about where the plot goes would put us in spoiler hell and for a movie so reliant on the sudden turn it takes you’ll just have to figure it out yourself. They call the 4th of July “Big Willie Weekend” because Smith has been responsible for opening so many blockbusters during this time frame including Independence Day Bad Boys Men In Black among others. The movie-going public obviously loves him (so do we) and he’s coming off two strong recent performances in I Am Legend and The Pursuit of Happyness. On the surface the role of Hancock--a complicated reluctant superhero who is all ’tude-- fits right in with the rest of the resume but despite the star’s best efforts Hancock comes off a little too contrived and affected. Will’s charisma is going to have to work overtime for eager audiences to completely buy this character. An abrupt tonal shift halfway through presents a strong challenge to Theron who suddenly isn’t who she appears to be at first. Credit must go to this fine actress for making the awkward transition Mary Embrey seamless. And thank God for Jason Bateman whose innate charm and ability to play comedy makes Ray a guy in a REAL quandary--the most likeable of all the main stars as he is caught in a Twilight Zone of superhero antics. Actor-turned-director Peter Berg (The Kingdom Friday Night Lights) is all flash and style with Hancock. He moves his shaky camera right up into the stars faces and back again awkwardly shifting the tone from comedy to maudlin drama and trying to ramp up a story that just doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense. Films about comic-book superheroes are a dime a dozen in the summer months and audiences have shown they can easily suspend disbelief if they have a protagonist to root for. Berg’s failure here is to present Will Smith in such a way that we don’t care. The movie is full of botched opportunities with the whole arc collapsing as the thin screenplay recklessly takes off in unexpected directions--including a ridiculous scene in which Hancock goes to prison (for no good reason) that gives new meaning to the term “butting heads.” Not only do sequences like this seriously challenge the viability of the film’s PG-13 rating they test our patience for all its worth. Even though there are some nice special effects and its faults do not lie in our stars (we still love you Will) Hancock does not set off the kind of fireworks you may have been expecting this Big Willie Weekend.