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.
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.