Muddled 'Hancock' Can't Save the Day, Even With Will Smith

"Hancock" (* * out of four) might have been more appropriately titled "Hodgepodge".

What starts out with a sense of quirky fun loses direction and devolves into a mishmash of story lines. The finished product is so poorly conceived and misguided that even Will Smith, with all his charm, can't save it.

It's a shame, because the antics of a slovenly, snide and misunderstood superhero might have made for a fun summer movie. But "Hancock" deviates from the original concept and goes astray in the process.

For the first 45 minutes or so, the story works. Hancock's offhanded efforts at saving lives and stopping bad guys leave so much damage in their wake that most of Los Angeles turns against him. The notion of public relations pro Ray Embrey (a likable Jason Bateman) spinning his image has plenty of comic potential. Smith's surly Hancock is a lot more fun than the earnest side that surfaces later.

The film changes its focus about halfway in, growing almost philosophical. The story becomes a contest of wills between Hancock and Charlize Theron, who plays Ray's wife, Mary. What seemed pretty straightforward becomes convoluted. And Theron, so good in serious roles, doesn't quite nail the tone here.

Then, a cardboard cutout of a villain is introduced. It's as if the filmmakers decided that the Smith-Theron subplot was not working and decided to make it a generic good-guy-vs.-bad-guy tale.

The premise has been so muddied by this point that it almost feels as if everyone involved just gave up.

Perhaps the high concept with its comic nugget -- a loser superhero who annoys more than inspires awe -- couldn't sustain a full feature.

What could have been a perfectly enjoyable blend of comedy and action blows up in our faces trying to be a heavier, larger-than-life romance with historical, spiritual and sci-fi implications.

Basic logic is jettisoned as well. As a superhero, Hancock has bullets bounce off him. But at key points, they pierce him. Then they bounce off him again. Sure, it's a fantasy, but the internal logic should have some consistency if we're going to get caught up in what happens. Who wants to struggle to keep up with a popcorn movie?

(Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Opens tonight in select theaters and Wednesday nationwide.)