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Hancock among capsule film reviews

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GET SMART Get Smart, the TV sitcom that aired from 1965 to 1970, was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, and these legendary funnymen are listed in the credits of this spin-off as "creative consultants." The word is that neither actually had any real input in this movie, which probably explains why major facets differ from what fans fondly recall about the show. But in at least one respect, there's a striking similarity: Both have no problem providing the laughs. In the hit series, Don Adams starred as bumbling agent Maxwell Smart while Barbara Feldon played his more competent partner, Agent 99. Working for a government unit known as C.O.N.T.R.O.L., the secret agents had their hands full protecting the world from the rival outfit K.A.O.S. In this update, which seems as much a James Bond spoof as a Get Smart homage, the plot similarly finds Steve Carell's Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway's Agent 99 out to stop K.A.O.S. head Siegfried (Terence Stamp). All of the performers (including Alan Arkin and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) are given a scene or two in which to shine, although most of the best set pieces belong to the leads. There's a ballroom sequence involving Maxwell and a hefty dance partner that's surprisingly sweet-natured – for once, a film honors an overweight person rather than simply making fun – while Agent 99 gets off a monologue that culminates in a sentimental mention of her mom. And therein lies much of the appeal of this big-screen Get Smart: In between the gags and the action scenes, there's an identifiable human element at work, and this empathy prevents this from being just another big, dumb summer comedy. ***

HANCOCK The idea behind Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" can be applied to this sci-fi outing that, somewhat surprisingly, ends up taking the path "less traveled by." Yet equally surprising is the fact that this enjoyable film would have been even better had it played out as expected. The premise is irresistible: Hancock (Will Smith) is an alcoholic, antisocial superhero whose crimefighting exploits usually end up causing millions of dollars in damage to the city of Los Angeles. The residents have had enough of him, and the police even have a warrant out for his arrest. Hancock couldn't care less until PR guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), despite protests from his wife (Charlize Theron), decides he's going to help Hancock overhaul his public image by transforming him from a menace to society into a hero worthy of respect. The first half sprints with this plotline, resulting in a movie that's consistently funny and inventive – even the typically heavy-handed direction by Peter Berg (The Kingdom) can't dilute the fun. But without warning, scripters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan orchestrate a major plot pirouette, one that dramatically changes the relationships between the characters and allows a sharp satire to mutate into (in no order) a melodrama, a romance, a tragedy, and a myth-building muddle. No movie should survive such a clumsy shift, and yet this manages to get back on its feet, thanks in no small part to the conviction that Smith and Theron bring to their roles. Audience members willing to hop aboard this emotional roller coaster ride will respond to the resultant pathos far better than viewers wondering why the laughs suddenly went MIA. **1/2

THE HAPPENING The Happening starts off well before steadily traipsing downhill, and in that respect, it perfectly mirrors writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's career in this spooky vein. The Sixth Sense may have been a smash, but each subsequent film was less satisfying than the one which preceded it, leading all the way to his disastrous last film, Lady In the Water. The Happening at least represents a step up from that debacle. Opening in NYC, the first scenes show countless people suddenly become zombie-like before proceeding to take their own lives. It's soon revealed that this phenomenon is spreading to all major cities throughout the northeast chamber of the country; this includes Philadelphia, where a high school science teacher (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) elect to leave town before the plague hits. Or is it a plague? No one has a definitive answer, and for a while, Shyamalan steadfastly refuses to give us any hints. It's during these early passages, when we're as baffled as the characters, that the film is at its strongest. But the self-appointed master of the last-minute twist here elects to reveal the mystery somewhere around the halfway mark. It's such a threadbare revelation – and a rather silly one, to boot – that the movie then ambles forward with nothing else left to say. As for Shyamalan's usual on-screen appearance, it proves to be the most clever aspect of the movie. I don't dare ruin the surprise, but if you don't figure it out while watching the flick, be sure to carefully check the cast list in the end credits. Unfortunately, when a movie's best bit arrives during the closing credits, we're all in trouble. **