06/18/2008 12:00 AM |

At first, Hancock boldly employs the Cable Guy approach, transforming one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars into a misanthrope. Will Smith’s preference for playing jocular wiseasses who can tear even the most towering beasts a new one has grown irksome. But here, Smith seems to be assassinating his extroversion, sleepwalking through the unshaven, perpetually drunken title role: an immortal but loathed underground superhero. Even when Hancock skyrockets to a crime scene, landing oppressively enough to shatter a whole cul-de-sac, or hurls one snarling meanie up another’s asshole, Smith lets CGI do all the work, scarcely lifting his arms. The obnoxious put-downs are there, but they’re laced with arsenic and delivered with the same mumbling, squinting approach. It’s a hilarious break from form, deftly steered by director Peter Berg, who helmed the tar-black comedy Very Bad Things.

Jason Bateman, playing the unctuous PR rep who helps mitigate Hancock’s public image, is also delightful. But once Smith shaves, the film loses all grit, all verve. It ditches the PR plot entirely and delves into Hancock’s convoluted and sappy past, which he can’t remember due to an amnesia incident, but which predictably involves Bateman’s wife (Charlize Theron), and which goes back eons.

The lunacy of the plot twist would be acceptable if it were given the appropriate loony-bin treatment. Instead, the story shifts between trite slapstick and humorless exposition — if we are told, for instance, that Smith was scarred in a Constantine-era battle, why not show it? With no passion or excitement in its slo-mo-riddled finale, no satisfying pay-off to the characters’ fates, not even an interracial love fest — mainstream Hollywood’s most feared device — Hancock becomes a sell-out disguised as against-the-grain whimsy.

Opens July 2