Saturday, July 19, 2008

Changing Horses In Midstream

I watched Hancock earlier this week, and while it had its moments and solidified my high regard for Will Smith as an actor, I did not like the film. It had a lot of potential. Perhaps too much, as by the end it seemed to be pulling in multiple directions.

In fact, halfway through it complete shifts both plot AND tone. Initially, I thought this was its major fault. And while that definitely let to my dissatisfaction, I later realized the mere fact it changed so quickly and so significantly wasn't the problem.

Million Dollar Baby does a very similar thing, as its plot and tone take, if not a complete 180, still enough of a turn to throw you off. But I liked it. A lot.

In trying to analyze the differences in how the films handle these changes, I was surprised at the similarities I found.

Obviously to discuss these I'll need to go into some detail about both films' plots, so here's a warning: THERE BE SPOILERS!

Both films begin with a plot that is exactly what you'd expect from watching the previews. Hancock follows a superhero who's kind of an asshole as he tries to rebuild his image. Million Dollar Baby follows a tough female boxer as she convinces a retired boxing coach to train her, leading to the formation of a very loving, father-daughter sort of bond.

The latter film's tone during its first half is pretty easy to define. It's a realistic, gritty, yet upbeat mood of yearning for the underdog to make it. Basically, Rocky with a girl.

Hancock is a little harder to define, which is what kept me interested for awhile. While it's definitely comedic, there's a sense of sadness permeating from the title character; you can feel his loneliness and desire to be loved. And the humor itself, while slipping into over-the-top country a couple of times, stays fairly tongue-in-cheek. There are elaborate special effects, but they aren't meant to inspire awe. They essentially say, "Yeah, I'm a superhero. Here's the kind of shit I can do."

Even as Hancock tries to reinvent himself, the film avoids being too sappy (for awhile). It has a bit of fun with the idea that he can still be an asshole as long as he's a lovable asshole. (But don't get my started on how much I hated the "call me an asshole one more time" motif.)

I would hardly call the revelation that Mary (Charlize Theron), the wife of the PR agent (Jason Bateman) helping Hancock change his image, also has superpowers a plot twist. From the first moment she and Hancock see each other, it's annoyingly, painfully obvious that they share some kind of secret. Then it just becomes a matter of how long the film drags on before finally getting to it.

Though it turned out to be too good to be true, I loved Hancock's simple explanation for why he was the way he was. He didn't know. He woke up in an emergency room in Miami eighty years ago (He doesn't age.) with a crushed skull and amnesia. The skull miraculously healed itself, and he discovered he was invincible.

Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Since this wasn't an origin story, I didn't care to know all of the intricate details about how he got his powers. (Actually, I generally don't care to know them even when it IS an origin story because they tend to focus on them too much.)

But after Mary reveals her secret, we're treated to some of the most convoluted backstory possible. I've tried to sort out the details to make it easier, but believe me when I say it wasn't explained nearly as concisely as I've done here.

1. Thousands of years ago, a number of "things" like Hancock were put on Earth to protect the people and watch over them.
2. For some reason, they were created in pairs, which meant they were forever linked and predisposed to being together. Whenever they're apart, they are drawn to each other, sometimes without knowing it (like when one has amnesia).
3. This is an especially bad idea because when the pairs are together for two long, they start to become mortal. This leaves them vulnerable to attacks and death by old age, which is how all the others died.
4. Distance is the only thing that helps them keep their powers, so Mary has tried to stay away, but Hancock keeps being drawn to her .
5. They were together a number of times in the past, but since they were vulnerable, they were attacked. I'm assuming that they were then apart for long stretches of time, otherwise they'd be much older.

Before all of this came out, I thought the revelation was going to be that Mary was actually a super villain, and that she and Hancock would have to fight. That ain't great, but it's a lot more straight-forward than what they went with.

A bit of a side note: My initial guess was that Mary had gotten her powers from sleeping with Hancock in the past. But perhaps the implications of that are beyond the bounds of PG-13 territory.

This isn't to say that I don't want a complicated story-line. It just don't want a convoluted one. There is something incredibly tragic in the idea of a couple that is separated for hundreds of years at a time in order to keep the other one safe. That reminds me of The Time Traveler's Wife in a way. But having Mary simply talk about it wasn't enough to get me emotionally invested.

The biggest problem was all of the explanation that became necessary after the plot changed. It went from a movie that didn't need to explain anything to a movie that still didn't make sense after seemingly endless discussions.

While Million Dollar Baby dramatically shifts plots as well, we know exactly what's going on. One of Maggie's (Hilary Swank) opponents fights dirty and punches her after the round ending bell has sounded, catching her off-guard. She's knocked down and lands on her stool in such a way that she becomes completely paralyzed, save for above the neck.

It definitely grabs you from out of nowhere, pulling you into the depths of hell. But even though it's a surprise turn, you know exactly what's going on. The only questions that need to be asked are moral ones, and the film doesn't really ask them for you, much less attempt to answer them.

While they still would have needed to cut down on all of the exposition, Hancock would have been a lot more interesting if the story had changed to something we were familiar with, such as an affair between Hancock and Mary. At least that would have thrown us off of the real secret for awhile.

The tonal shift in Million Dollar Baby isn't significant, but it's there. While the film stays gritty and realistic, it loses that uplifting hope that it starts with when you think you're going to watch Maggie rise to greatness. Instead, you're filled with agony and despair.

Hancock's tonal shift is much more pronounced, and the really unfortunate thing about it is that while the plot gets more serious and dramatic (or at least attempts to), the tone becomes campier and more cookie-cutter blockbuster action movie.

Mary doesn't want Hancock to expose her secret. When he flies off to do so, they have a huge chase, destroying everything in their path and eventually fighting in front of Mann's Chinese Theater, which is kind of a stupid move on her part if she wants to keep her powers a secret. In addition, the special effects are now meant to dazzle us, including a tornado and snow that shows up for some reason.

This could have been really powerful and dramatic. A woman desperate to keep her secret hidden in order to keep the man she loves. Instead it becomes a pointless action sequence.

The real twist of the plot (that is, the only thing that really surprised me) comes soon after this when Hancock is injured. For some reason, Mary told him everything except how them being together makes them slowly become mortal.

This scene is done pretty brilliantly, as it seems to be about Hancock slipping back into his alcoholism. He stops by a convenience store to buy some drinks and winds up thwarting a robbery. He gets shot in the process, and the bullets actually wound him. (Though to what degree is never clear. He's not entirely mortal because he gets shot A LOT later and doesn't die.)

So as you see, both films feature serious injuries that take you by complete surprise. And afterwards, the majority of the film takes place in a hospital.

In Hancock's case, the hospital serves as an action set piece when some "villains" return to settle the score after a prison break. While I'll admit that Hancock is more vulnerable now, these bad guys were previously NO THREAT WHATSOEVER, so it's hard to be worried for him. Add that to the fact that they have no plan except to show up at the hospital with guns. Considering that they don't know why Hancock was injured (for all they know it was a special kind of bullet that they don't have), this is really stupid.

Both films end with the main character making a decision to do what he thinks is best for the female lead. In Million Dollar Baby, Frankie (Clint Wastwood) euthanizes Maggie, and though this has lead to a lot of debate, it's definitely what her character wants.

The decision in Hancock isn't nearly as tough to make. He leaves. It's supposed to seem tough because Hancock has been shot and has to stagger away, leap out a window, and get further and further away so that he and Mary can become immortal again. (As he's attacked by the bad guys she suffers the pain right along with him, so by the end they are both on the brink of death.)

That is, I think they are. But it's never clear exactly how close he is to dying or how much he even feels the pain. Granted, I didn't want more explanation. But it would have been nice to have had some idea of how heroic his actions were.

With both of these films, I knew there was a "twist" before I saw the movie. No one called the turn of events in Million Dollar Baby by the name "plot twist" though, perhaps because it was a freak occurrence and not a revelation that had been true all along. And I wouldn't call the first reveal in Hancock a twist simply because it was so inevitable from the very beginning.

One I loved. One I didn't like. Obviously other things in the films besides how they handle the major change affected those decisions, but I'm sure not having to listen to countless questions be answered helped me become much more engrossed with the drama in Million Dollar Baby.

Can anyone else think of any other films that shift so dramatically in either plot, tone, or both? And what did you think of them?


AJF said...

"In The Bedroom" goes a wildly different direction in its third act. It's so surprising--but still completely understandable--that it made the movie resonate much more deeply with me.

"Shattered Glass" is a weird example because it's based on a true story, but the film's hero doesn't show up until about halfway through. The character focus shifts from Hayden Christenson to Peter Sarsgaard and it also works really well.

A film that changed dramatically halfway through--and, in effect, ruined itself--was "Across the Universe." What started as something fun and inventive and a little silly became dark and serious but still silly. While neat-looking, it was difficult to sit through everything after Bono showed up.

Jonathan K said...

I didn't find In The Bedroom's change surprising, but it was definitely different.

Don't really remember that about Shattered Glass. My dislike for the film had more to do with Christenson's performance than anything else.

I don't plan to see Across the Universe, but I remember you saying that.

Thanks for the feedback.