Failed Superheroes And Gonzo Journalists

Film critic Daniel Holloway takes a look at Hancock, The Wackness and Gonzo: The Life and Times of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

OK, so if the world of movies in 2008 will be remembered as anything, it will be remembered as the summer of the lazy headline. You know how the headline writers of Variety like to bust out things like "Hicks Nix Chicks Flicks," meaning the latest Reese Witherspoon movie underperformed in rural markets?

But the movies this year have been way too easy to riff on. After all, "Hulk" was a smash. "Get Smart" outsmarted "The Love Guru," and what was the movie that lasted the longest time in theaters? "Iron Man." Enter "The Wackness." Do your best, punsters. It doesn't mean anything. Daniel Holloway is here with his insightfulnessness (ph), his analysisness (ph). Also, he writes movies and reviews - no, do you write some movies? Yeah. Probably one in the drawer, right?

DANIEL HOLLOWAY: I've got - maybe in my head, I've got a five - minute movie about, I don't know.

PESCA: The thisness. The thatness.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah.

PESCA: He writes reviews for Metro Newspapers. He's our guy. Thanks for coming in, Dan.

HOLLOWAY: Thanks for having me.

PESCA: So we'll get to "The Wackness" in a second. I guess the biggest one opening is "Hancock"?

HOLLOWAY: Lots of puns there.

PESCA: Yeah. That's right.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah.

PESCA: Han Solo, and then there's the second syllable.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah.

PESCA: It turns out - Jacob Ganz was looking at the charts. He likes to look at his charts and see where Pluto was aligned, but he was looking at the movie charts. Since 1997, almost every other year, July 4th weekend has a huge Will Smith movie. This is a very interesting trend. So, it's an odd - well, it's an even year, but - I guess, so it's 2006 and 2004, going back to "Independence Day," in other words, Hitchcock. Wait, "Hitch," he did "Hitch," right?

HOLLOWAY: Yeah.

PESCA: Now he's doing "Hancock."

HOLLOWAY: Yes. Yeah.

PESCA: I'm getting a little confused. So Will Smith has a big movie in movie theaters. Tell us a little bit about Hitch - "Hancock."

HOLLOWAY: "Hancock" is a - it was actually a script that, speaking of puns, had been languishing on desks in Hollywood for, I think, about 20 years, under the working title "Tonight He Comes."

PESCA: Oh.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah. That eventually got changed to "Hancock," which is arguably not an improvement.

PESCA: No.

HOLLOWAY: It's about a drunken, surly superhero who continues to do his job but has kind of lost the will to really, you know, commune with the people and be nice.

PESCA: I think most everyone who does a superhero movie that isn't taking a known hero from like Marvel or DC and bringing him to life, they like to do that riff on it, which is, what if the superhero had a lot of flaws? So, does this movie take the riff anywhere special?

HOLLOWAY: This is kind of, at least in the first 30 minutes, the last word in flawed superheroes. It's probably - the first 30 minutes of the film are the best, and it's because you're used to seeing Will Smith as being the ultimate likable actor. I mean, try to think of something that he's been in since "Six Degrees of Separation" where he wasn't just the nice, likable guy.

PESCA: Suave, cool, you identified with him, even in "Pursuit of Happyness," where he's, like, real down on his luck, he's plucky. You know, you want to root for Will Smith.

HOLLOWAY: Exactly. The first time we see him here, he's passed out drunk on a park bench and he starts swearing at a child.

PESCA: Really?

HOLLOWAY: Yeah. He also swears at old ladies, and again, this is the best part of the film, because you get to see a little bit of Will Smith playing with that public persona that he has. And it's something, while it's a natural outgrowth of the idea of the sort of flawed Marvel superhero, you haven't seen it quite taken to this point yet of film.

PESCA: Yeah. The - here, let's play a clip. In this clip, Hancock, played by Will Smith, is explaining his background to a publicist, played by Jason Bateman.

(Soundbite of movie "Hancock")

Mr. JASON BATEMAN: (as Ray Embrey) You don't remember anything?

Mr. WILL SMITH: (as John Hancock) Only thing I had in my pocket was bubble gum, two movie tickets, Boris Karloff, "Frankenstein." But no ID, nothing. I wanted to sign out. The nurse asked me for my John Hancock. I actually thought that's who I was.

Mr. BATEMAN: (as Ray Embrey) How come I didn't hear any of this? I didn't read about it in newspapers.

Mr. SMITH: (as John Hancock) It was probably in the papers 80 years ago.

Mr. BATEMAN: (as Ray Embrey) 80 years ago?

Mr. SMITH: (as John Hancock) Oh, I don't age.

PESCA: All right, so I think we've got from that 37-second clip, you find out a lot about the movie. I - that's the plot. He's trying to find out who he is, right?

HOLLOWAY: That's right. He doesn't know who he is. And you know, guess what, in act three, we're going to find out who he is.

PESCA: So, you like the first 30 minutes. Does this imply that the rest of it falls down?

HOLLOWAY: I kept thinking of the last Will Smith movie that I saw, which was "I Am Legend," where the first two acts were really interesting, because Smith's character was very isolated, and it becomes somewhat crappy when other characters are introduced and it has to tie-up the sort of genre devices very neatly. This movie is good in the beginning, when it's playing with those - your sort of preconceptions of the superhero genre.

When it comes time for him to become reformed and step up and be the hero he needs to be, then it becomes sort of an everyday superhero movie, and it becomes - it loses some of its character. That wasn't really the best-written scene in the movie. There's some genuinely funny moments that come out of the dialogue, and Bateman's a funny actor. Charlize Theron is also in this. And Will Smith, I mean, there's a reason that he's arguably the biggest movie star in the world right now, and it's because he's very charming on screen. I think you can't really fault him for being a bad actor. You can fault him for not being very ambitious in the roles that he chooses.

PESCA: Then again, that's what makes him a huge star.

HOLLOWAY: Right, he...

PESCA: And you know, movie stars, this is what they do. Does Jimmy Stewart, did he really stretch? Did Cary Grant really stretch that much? Did John Wayne? They're movie stars. They kind of play the same role over and over again.

HOLLOWAY: Yes, this is true. And if you're a guy like Will Smith, you know, why not just take batting practice for your whole career?

PESCA: Yeah, why not? You get paid 20 million dollars. All right. So let's move on to - so that would be a somewhat mediocre review. Let's move on to a movie set in 1994. We talked to the director on the show. The movie is called "The Wackness." Do you want to give away why they call it "The Wackness"?

HOLLOWAY: Yeah, I've seen it, actually, mentioned in some features I read already.

PESCA: OK, so the seal is broken.

HOLLOWAY: The seal is broken.

PESCA: It's not like some great secret, but...

HOLLOWAY: No, it's not. It's actually a little cheesy. You know those points in movies where they have to like force the title into...

PESCA: Like when he says, they asked me for my John Hancock? Like that? Exactly.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah, just like what we listened to. Yeah, it's actually a scene between Olivia Thirlby and Josh Peck, who are the young actors who play a sort of romantic couple in this film, and she tells him, you know what your problem is, Shapiro? I look at things and I see the dopeness. You only see the wackness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You know what, Kane? You're quite a citizen!

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: That lost ark needs some raidering (ph). Yeah, maybe the great movies don't have that scene. So, what do you think of this film?

HOLLOWAY: I actually liked this film a lot. I saw it back in February at Sundance and then saw it again, I believe, last week. And it's - when I first saw it, and then again when I saw it the second time, I thought, this is kind of the reverse side of the coin from "Juno." It's a movie about kids. It's a coming-of-age story set with kids, that same kind of time. It's got a romantic element. It also has to do with this sort of relationship between kids who are isolated and older, sort of mentoring people. The weird - and it costars is Olivia Thirlby, who played Juno MacGuff's best friend in "Juno."

PESCA: Right.

HOLLOWAY: The thing that is different about this movie is that there's no effort to make these children talk in this overly precocious, entertaining way. It's set in 1994 among sort of upper-upper-middle class white kids who live in Manhattan, but who listen to hip-hop.

PESCA: Not to put anyone off if the upper-upper-middle class gets to you, the main character is actually kind of an, you know, he's dealing with - the Olivia Thirlby character is a lot richer than he is.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah, this is true.

PESCA: He has an economic uncertainty that drives the plot. He's got to sell drugs...

HOLLOWAY: Yeah.

PESCA: To make some money, maybe to save his dad's apartment. That sounds like that doesn't work, but it does work...

HOLLOWAY: It does work.

PESCA: In the context of the movie. Here's what I thought didn't work, and we'll throw you a clip to define it. Luke is played by Josh Peck, this kid from Nickelodeon. He could be, you know, a very likeable star. Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Squires, who is his friend and one of his customers for marijuana. Let's hear some interaction, then I'll tell you what I thought didn't work in this movie.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wackness")

Sir BEN KINGSLEY: (as Dr. Squires) Look around you, Luke. Is this what you want for your mind, for your life? You wanted to be like this city, sweep all the nastiness under the rug, make everything OK? Jump for the quick fix. Embrace your pain. Make it a part of you. You don't want to be like them. I don't want you to be like them.

Mr. JASON BATEMAN: (as Luke Shapiro) So, what? You've never taken any of that stuff?

Sir KINGSLEY: (as Dr. Squires) Jesus, Luke, I'm on all of it. I don't want you to be like me, either.

PESCA: I thought Ben Kingsley's performance was terrible accent. I could get past that, but it seemed like the accent drove everything. He seemed to be full of wackness, or wackiness. He seemed unhinged every time he was on screen. I got distracted and just said to myself, what the hell is Gandhi doing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOLLOWAY: See, this - that's weird. I had the opposite reaction to that performance. I felt like, watching him, I very much believed this was a guy who's been taking drugs for the last 40, 30 years.

PESCA: OK, maybe I didn't consider the longtime cumulative effects of all the drugs, thus distorting his accent.

HOLLOWAY: But I mean, if you didn't get that...

PESCA: Yeah.

HOLLOWAY: Then that wasn't communicated clearly enough to you. I mean, you know, I'm willing to concede that maybe - that not everyone's going to get that out of the film, maybe it should have been hammered home more.

PESCA: But the good parts of the movie, the heart of the movie, the fact that this director, you know, will probably do interesting things, the smaller roles by big-name people like Method Man and Mary-Kate Olsen, all very good.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah. And Famke Janssen also.

PESCA: Famke Janssen. And I think that Thirlby girl.

HOLLOWAY: I think she's going to do good stuff.

PESCA: I agree. All right, let's talk about a documentary called "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson." This is - the director is who?

HOLLOWAY: Alex Gibney.

PESCA: Gibney.

HOLLOWAY: "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

PESCA: So that was an Academy Award-nominated film. That was very much didactic.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah.

PESCA: You know, I guess in a good way, if you didn't know anything about Enron, it's a good way to learn about it through his movie. What's his take on Dr. Hunter S. Thompson?

HOLLOWAY: It's also a learning experience. You know, if you're interested in Dr. Thompson, or if you - or you know, as someone who's already a fan or somebody who is wanting to learn about him, it is basically a sort of blow-by-blow go through his life. Gibney gets in a lot of big name people. It's Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, George McGovern, Graydon Carter, Jann Wenner. It just kind of goes on and on. You have all these, you know, a few people who are huge in shaping American lives, you know, since 1960, talking about Thompson.

PESCA: All right, well, we have an example of that. In this clip, you'll hear archival tape of Hunter S. Thompson giving his opinion of President Richard Nixon, followed by the movie's narrator, Johnny Depp, reading from Thompson's writings on Nixon. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of documentary "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson")

Dr. HUNTER S. THOMPSON (Journalist): Richard Nixon represents everything that I not only have contempt for but dislike and think should be stomped out.

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (Reading) He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II. When students at Kent State University in Ohio protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

Mr. DEPP: (Reading) Some people will say that words like "scum" and "rotten" are wrong for objective journalism, which is true. But they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.

PESCA: All right. So there is Johnny Depp, who obviously took his role essentially as Hunter S. Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," you know, Raoul Duke was the Thompson stand-in. It seems like it works as history. How does it work as an entertaining movie?

HOLLOWAY: Not terribly well. It plays a lot like a documentary you might see on the History Channel or something like that, which - those shows serve their purpose, but I feel like you need a little more artistry out of a documentary that you're going to see in a theater. And I'm not getting that here. There's some really terrible, terrible scenes of reenactments of bits of Thompson's writings that are incredibly off-putting, considering that the rest of the film consists all entirely of this archival footage and these interviews. And it's just - there's a scene where a guy's reenacting a bit that Thompson wrote, describing Nixon as a werewolf jumping out of the White House.

PESCA: No, what are you saying? We don't see a werewolf jumping.

HOLLOWAY: We see a werewolf jumping.

PESCA: That's a problem with "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," someone with reference. You know, it was that old black magic. And they threw out the song "That Old Black Magic."

HOLLOWAY: Yeah.

PESCA: I didn't see the film in between those two. I mean, maybe he made some shorts, but he was nominated for "Taxi to the Dark Side" for an Oscar. Was that a good one? Did you see Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side"?

HOLLOWAY: I actually liked "Taxi" a lot better than I liked this film. It's...

PESCA: That won the Academy Award.

HOLLOWAY: Yeah, and he's involved in a dispute with his distributor now, actually. I - this compared to "Taxi," it's not that - I don't think that the format, the sort of talking-doc format can work. I just didn't feel like the - for instance, the reenacted pieces in "Taxi" are very well-produced. In this film, they seem like they were produced on an incredibly short timetable, low budget, which most documentaries are...

PESCA: Yeah.

HOLLOWAY: But this one somehow shorter and lower than most films.

PESCA: And of course, you have a built-in excuse. Hey, we're being gonzo!

HOLLOWAY: Yeah. And the film is a bit sycophantic. I mean, it's - it is deifying Thompson in this way. I mean, you do hear about his bad behavior, but it's not going to sway you in one direction or the other about his standing in the history of journalism. PESCA: Daniel Holloway, our movie guy, and the movie reviewer for Metro Newspapers. Thank you.

HOLLOWAY: Thank you, sir.

PESCA: Bryant Park Project is directed by Jacob Ganz and edited by Trish McKinney. Josh Rogosin's our technical director. Here's some of the staff, Dan Pashman, Ian Chillag, Win Rosenfeld, Lauren Spohrer, Caitlin Kenney, Paul Hechinger, Zena Barakat, Laura Silver. Molly Messick and Meena Ramamurthy are our interns. Laura Conaway edits the blog. The sound of Jell-O is...

(Soundbite of Jell-O shaking)

PESCA: Our newscaster is Matt Garrison. Our senior producer is Matt Martinez. Sharon Hoffman is our executive producer. I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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