In Hancock, a peculiar and occasionally charming poke in the ribs of the superman myth, Will Smith plays the rudest, smelliest superhero America has ever seen. Cursed with the physical elegance and urbanity of a Cary Grant or a Denzel Washington, Smith looks like an underdressed movie star even with a woolly cap, five-o’clock shadow and bloodshot eyes, but he presses on diligently as the ill-mannered lout we first meet flat on his back and hung-over in between bouts of saving Los Angeles from the usual round of robberies and murders. Far from pursuing happyness, Hancock carries out his rescue duties with sullen resentment and sloppy work habits, spraying debris and garnering popular ill will wherever he goes, which he returns in colorful language once considered well outside of PG-13 range. When endless repetition of the word asshole gets a movie’s biggest laughs, it’s either canny marketing or an ominous sign. Or worse, both.

Columbia Pictures

Stuporhero: Will Smith

Something topical and recession-related is afoot in Hancock, and it cheers me no end to hear that Columbia Pictures is promoting the movie with a competition whose winner will have his or her mortgage paid off. But even bearing in mind the conventional wisdom that superman movies keep coming back to cheer us through hard times, I’m not clear whether Hancock is meant to be a representative of the homeless, a midcareer-burnout case or a troubled brother from another planet. Plainly, though, the guy is in need of the love of a good woman. This being Los Angeles, he also needs a publicist (a capable, if underchallenged Jason Bateman), whose life Hancock saves by overturning half the local Amtrak fleet. As successful PR flacks go, Bateman’s Ray is an unusually gentle soul whose corporate clients, on being urged to improve their image by giving away their product for free, conclude that he, too, is an alien, from the planet of nice guys who finish last. Nothing daunted, Ray, who looks enough like Tobey Maguire or James McAvoy to arouse suspicion that he might be harboring as yet unflexed muscles, turns his talents to improving his rescuer’s poor social skills.

Having had my fill of skinny office drones bursting to don tight red suits and save the wretched of the Earth, I went in rooting for Hancock’s nifty inversion of the caped-crusader identi-kit. But you don’t get a free pass just for turning a beloved formula inside out, and this strange genre hybrid, scripted by the alliterative team of Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, doesn’t seem to quite know what it is or where it’s headed. So it goes anywhere it can while treading thematic water: to jail, where Hancock gets his sensitivity training from a therapy group composed of hardened lifers; to Ray’s comfy home in the Valley, where the little woman (played by the very tall, suggestively strong Charlize Theron) gets all twitchy and keeps throwing Hancock charged glances; to the hospital, where one superperson almost succumbs to the excessive proximity of another. In between, L.A. gets wasted, and a love story is hinted at so broadly, you have it at hello. When not setting cars on fire or blasting the glass out of tall buildings, director Peter Berg shoots almost every take right in his actors’ faces, as if emotional intensity could be achieved merely by enlargement.

Miscast or not, Smith, with his sinuous grace, is always a pleasure to watch, and given his unshakable allure at the box office and the clockwork regularity with which stuff blows up, Hancock is destined to be a monster hit with the only audience that matters any more, plus their dates. Like all movies fixed too watchfully on more than one market, this one goes all cross-eyed trying to please them both, then throws up its hands and dispatches its hero to the only place a superhobo can plausibly go — the moon.

HANCOCK | Directed by PETER BERG | Written by VY VINCENT NGO and VINCE GILLIGAN | Produced by AKIVA GOLDSMAN, MICHAEL MANN, WILL SMITH and JAMES LASSITER | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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