Like a timid giant, popularity rules big-time at the box office. I remember interviewing John Wayne in his home in Newport Beach, Calif. and being shocked at how much he was concerned with Photoplay magazine's top actors list and whether he was going to be on top of the popularity list.
I thought, you're John Wayne, you shouldn't care. But he did. Anxiously.
A few actors such as Clint Eastwood, marry substance and popularity. But very few. Most actors' egos lead them to slum in the box office. I'm reminded of this often when a major, talented actor opts for popularity instead of substance when the latter beckons. A recent example is Will Smith in Hancock.
The first half of Hancock is human and smart with a clever premise and some deft execution. But about halfway through, Hancock loses its nerve and becomes gimmicky, sloppy nonsense. Instead of one very good movie, Hancock splits in half and becomes a mess. But it will be a popular mess. Will Smith is an immensely popular actor internationally. When it opened, Hancock was #1 in 47 countries.
I wish Hancock were a better movie; it could have been and should have been. Hancock is a marketing tool. It's full of product placement, and there were about ten previews of other movies being hawked before the feature. If they have people in the seats, why not?
Will Smith is a brash, engaging, cocky actor, but he shows little courage in the movies he chooses to carry. I thought he had used up the kitchen sink in Bad Boys 2, but in Hancock the kitchen sink once again keeps flying across the screen.
The first half of Hancock stresses the human condition. This is evocatively expressed by the three likable main actors: Smith (Hancock), Jason Bateman (Ray Emery) and Charlize Theron (Ray's wife Mary). The Emerys' son Aaron also is humanized by young actor Jae Head.
The character John Hancock is not likable. He is a wasted superhero who behaves boorishly and destructively. He is a drunk without ethics.
When Hancock saves the life of Ray, the grateful PR man insists that he will help Hancock create a new positive image. Jason Bateman is the one actor who retains his humanity throughout the movie. That is why he has gotten so much favorable critical attention. The one human being in a movie that careens into cartoonishness becomes particularly memorable.
About halfway through Hancock, a committee must have stepped in and decided to blow up credibility. They must have said, we don't want the audience to think. That doesn't sell.
Ironically producer Michael Mann (who directed Will Smith as Ali) and writer Akiva Goldsman have cameos in Hancock as members of a board listening to Ray try to make an idealistic sales pitch.
Mann obviously had no interest in helming a cartoon, so Peter Berg takes on the tacky task. Berg once dumbed down Friday Night Lights, so he's an appropriate choice.
The scripts for Will Smith's movies usually are dumbed down. Bad Boys 2 may have set the record for f-bombs. The screenplay for Hancock has a rectal fixation. "I'll break my foot in your ass, woman," is one of the lyrical lines Hancock delivers to an old woman in a bar.
Hancock definitely sets the record for use of the word "a-hole." I lost count after 600. But despite the lower case language, the first half of Hancock is blessedly bright. Then Will Smith, et al. lose faith in their audience. Substantial humanity is jettisoned, and cartoon antics abound.
Would Hancock have dissatisfied its audience if it had remained substantial? Actually I think they would have appreciated it more than the silly cartoon with which they are left.
Once again Will Smith settles into the comfort zone of mediocrity.
Will, we try not to lose faith in you. Why do you lose faith in us?