This Friday, the M. Night Shyamalan/Will Smith project After Earth hits theaters, bringing together two of Hollywood’s most baffling and exasperating celebrities. Each man had huge success at the beginning of his film career, only to see it slowly dwindle away as the years go by. On Friday I’ll be talking about the director, but today I want to explore what exactly has led to the blah-ness that has become Will Smith’s filmography.
In the mid-‘90s, you would have been hard-pressed to find a more bankable movie star than Will Smith. His charisma and attitude were a blast to watch on screen in movies like Independence Day and Men in Black, and audiences responded by emptying their wallets. Smith found a very successful formula for being a beloved movie star, and then, well…it seems like he got stuck. The majority of his roles now are just “Will Smith as a cop” or “Will Smith as a future cop” or “Will Smith as Will Smith.” Anything risky or unexpected is rare, and what we’re left with are stale imitations of what used to be a fun guy to watch. To me, there is one overarching reason for this: his ego.
If you take a look at the last decade in Will Smith’s career, you can see this first hand. He comes out with primarily safe movies – sequels (Men in Black II, Bad Boys II) or rom-coms (Hitch) – that add nothing new to the landscape but come with built-in audiences and, therefore, are guaranteed to be at least relatively successful at the box office and let him do what he’s comfortable with. He’s got the “good guy with an attitude” role down pat, and it becomes easier and easier for him to phone it in.
Even when he does take baby steps out of his comfort zone, the scripts he chooses lack any significant impact. I Am Legend, for instance, showed that he has the capability to add more than just an attitude to his roles, but an edge as well. But surrounding his interesting performance is a disappointingly generic movie that fails to capitalize on its potential to be something totally new. The same can be said for the much-maligned Seven Pounds, which finds him playing a seriously flawed character only to drown the proceedings in melodrama, ruining any opportunity to take a bold step. It seems that Smith would rather limit himself to unexceptional, predictable, and again, safe films than make a bold choice with even the faintest possibility of falling flat.
It’s a shame because a bold choice could also do wonders in changing our expectations of Smith. And he’s had his chances. He was Quentin Tarantino’s first choice for the title role in Django Unchained, but Smith was so concerned that the part wouldn’t be seen as the “lead” that he turned it down. That movie, with its boundary-pushing Tarantino-ness, would have been a complete departure for Smith and might have even revitalized his stale career. But instead of attaching himself to one of the most revolutionary filmmakers of our generation, he teamed up with one of the most frustrating. Apparently he’s fine with playing a supporting role as long as his kid is the star fighting CGI super-monkeys, but working with the phenomenal Christoph Waltz just doesn’t do it for him.
I’d like to think there’s still a possibility we could see Will Smith take a chance in his career, but a glance at the upcoming projects on his IMDB page tells me it won’t be happening any time soon. Well, at least we have I Robot 2 and Bad Boys 3 to look forward to. Right?