a completely irrational reason for liking a movie

I’m a sucker for films that use live recordings of pop songs on their soundtracks. If you’re willing to admit, through applause, cheering, and a singer’s off-the-cuff remarks that the whole idea of adding pop songs, or indeed any music, to a scene is inherently artificial, then I feel like you’re operating on a more honest level. Somehow a little acknowledgement of the artificiality of the process has the potential to inoculate the audience against the sudden, jarring disbelief that too much technique and formal play can induce.

And so when Hancock opened with the crowd-pumping monologue of what sounds like a classic funk or soul singer (oddly, I couldn’t find a complete listing of the soundtrack online), I was charmed rather than put off by what followed: a transparent jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold plot applied to the superhero genre. Will Smith, nasty but not too nasty as the titular alcoholic superman, is at this point probably a given quantity for audiences — as with Jack Nicholson, you pretty much know what you’re getting. But he nails the exasperated, self-important patience of a slovenly and half-assed crimefighter, and it’s fun to watch the reactions of an ungrateful public during the first half of this film. When Hancock rips through the city recklessly doing good, it’s quite clear, he often wrecks as much as he saves, and the citizens of director Peter Berg’s golden, shiny L.A. aren’t shy with their criticism. There’s plenty here for a convention-tweaking, but ultimately conventional, super-powered light comedy. Which is really all I was expecting.

So when Hancock saves an idealistic, unsuccessful PR man (Jason Bateman) from a train and is invited home for dinner, it’s pretty obvious where this buddy thread is going. But what are those meaningful looks from the PR man’s wife (Charlize Theron)? Theron goes full-bore on the simmering subtext, and Berg helps her out by shooting these scenes like an aggrieved indie drama, all long-lens closeups of brooding and confused faces, with Bateman ably playing the straight man as he obliviously explains spaghetti night.

Well, hold that thought, because just as the scruffy-hero-shapes-up thread is running out of steam, and we’re expecting to soon be checking our watches during a noisy but boring tear-’em-up climax, the film slips smoothly into another mode. Or maybe not so smoothly. This second half has been hammered by both the mainstream press (“The jaunty, jokey riff on the screwed-up inner emotional life of a… superhero becomes… the icky lesson in the importance of personal responsibility, loyalty, and continued family togetherness.” — Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly) and the alternative (“Telegraphing surprises, however, isn’t as disastrous as the surprises themselves, which are so nonsensical that they sabotage any potential inquiry into the burdensome responsibility of, and sacrifice required by, heroism.” — Nick Schager, Slant), but I’m forced to agree with Roger Ebert, who calls the revelations of the second half “odd and penetrating.” And I hate agreeing with Roger Ebert.

But I like agreeing with my friend Chris Dahlen (of Pitchfork, Paste, and The Onion A.V. Club), who recently wrote a defense of Pixar’s underappreciated Cars. That film, he noted, has some fairly conventional points to make, but:

It’s a given that in the big race at the end of the flick, the way McQueen races will be more important than whether or not he wins. And it’s a given that McQueen will “do the right thing.” But I didn’t really see the ending coming…. I admired the fact that McQueen did the right thing. But it was also a significant choice. It would’ve been easy for him to wrap up the race and then go back and check on the King, and still come off as a pretty good guy. He didn’t make a choice between a bad act and a good one; he left a good outcome for a noble one.

And similarly, I like the end of this movie for its clear moral stakes and its straightforward presentation of three people doing the hard, right thing. I’m okay with that lesson — it didn’t feel “icky” to me. I don’t want to spoil the surprises, but I’ll say the following:

-I like that Hancock’s super-origin is only partially and vaguely explained. There are no flashbacks and only cursory exposition. Good. I don’t need it, and the more precisely you spell these things out, the lamer they usually are.

-There are a million wrong ways to have your non-super save your super at the climax of the film. This film doesn’t take one of them.

-There aren’t really any villains. Being super, in this world, is destructive enough. People trying to do right by each other often end up making things worse — a nice complicating factor that’s treated humorously in the first half (Hancock’s inadvertent devastation of property) but that’s made an explicit part of the franchise’s magical lore in the second half.

I’ve avoided Peter Berg’s films like the clap since sitting through the aptly-named Very Bad Things, and there are still some weak moments here (some macho posturing in the opening sequence and an unaccountable obssession with heads up asses — literally), but along with writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan he seems willing to let implication and undercurrent do a lot of the work here — which may be why so many fans and critics are complaining about the largely unexplained climax. If you don’t know what’s going on or what the moral tensions are, you haven’t been paying attention, and they’re not going out of their way to explain it to you. Fine with me.

Also, just as the opening bit of sonic deconstruction charmed me, I was pleased to hear The Roots’ “Here I Come” over the credits. Not the first movie to use this song — and Superbad made it ironic and funny rather than playing it straight — but still, it’s one of my favorite badass songs, and I’m glad it’s getting so much mainstream play.

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