Will Smith’s Problem (or maybe it’s just my problem with Will Smith)


It's good to be Will Smith

The first eight years of schooling was with all white people.  So that helped me to understand how white people think.  I think that transition is what helped me bridge the gap, because that’s what my success has really been about; bridging the gap between the black community and the white community.

~ Will Smith

Whatever else you want to say about Willard Christopher Smith Jr., you cannot in any way, shape or form call him a dumb man.

He knows what White people like.  He knows what Black people like.  They like Will Smith.

He’s that impossibly cool, calm and collected brother that exists primarily in the mind of screenwriters and rappers.   Smith was a  pretty fair rapper, but his movie star success has totally eclipsed that part of his life.

Smith embodies what Barry Manilow once said about Madonna (and I’m paraphrasing here) and that was that Madonna wasn’t the best singer in the world and she wasn’t the prettiest,  but she took what she did have and made it work better for her than anybody else.

That pretty well sums up Mr. Smith’s rocket rise to the status as one of the biggest movie stars in the business.  Maybe one of the biggest stars ever as his string of summer and Christmas movie spectaculars stretch on and on.  Smith commands a salary of $20 million per movie.   He’s obviously doing something very right.

His new movie, Hancock opened this Fourth of July weekend in about a bazillion theaters.  Smith plays a decidedly anti-social superhero who does as much damage to his reputation as he does to the bad guys (and the resulting property damage is pretty considerable too).  Is it any good?  Who cares!    All that matters is when it comes to putting fannies in the seats, Smith is as close as it comes to being a stone cold lock for a huge opening week.

It’s too bad  most Will Smith movies leave me cold.  Giving it a little thought I realized I have only seen one of his films in a theater.   That was Men In Black way back in 1997.  I can’t think of a bigger star whom has consistently churned out more pure product and consistently uninteresting movies than Mr. Smith.

In part it’s due to his own career blueprint.   Smith started off as an actor in smaller films such as Where the Day Takes You and Six Degrees of Separation, but he moved on to the summer blockbusters like Independence DayMen In Black and The Wild, Wild West which were better vehicles for his supercool persona.    Smith quickly figured out you can be a working actor who builds a body of work over time in small films or you can cut to the chase and be a superstar in special effects extravaganzas.

At least he’s honest about what his game plan was for taking over Hollywood.  “When I started in movies, I said,  ‘I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.’  The biggest movie stars make the movies, so [my producing partner James Lassiter and I] looked at the biggest movies of all time.   At that point, they were all special-effects movies.  So Independence Day, no-brainer.   Men In Black, no-brainer.  I, Robot, no-brainer.”

No lie.  Every one of those flicks qualifies as a “no-brainer.”  No brains required at all.

Still, it’s hard to hate on Smith.   His politics are liberal.  Barack Obama has joked that Smith should play him  in the movie about his life.  They do share similar ears and a great deal of crossover success.   Smith is married to  Jada Pinkett and they’ve stayed together and out of the tabloids.  He is a father to his kids and they’ve appeared in a few of his films.  Smith gives back to the community and has managed to do all this without making any serous enemies.    Think about it: have you ever hear anybody say anything bad about Will Smith?  By now there should be at least one episode of prima-donna behavior or one juicy gay, drug or fooling around rumor floating around, but not about Mr. Smith.

I’d rather be waterboarded than forced to watch Bad Boys II and unlike Adam Sandler or Jim Carey, he’s had some success when he tries to show a little range as an actor.   My favorite movie starring Smith is Enemy of the State where he doesn’t play his standard, jivey, smart-ass Black dude.   He plays a big shot Washington corporate attorney who is a jivey,  smart-ass Black guy.

It wasn’t a part any reasonably young, handsome and personable actor in Hollywood couldn’t have done just as well if not better.  Smith’s unforced likability and natural ease in front of the camera goes a long way in sealing the slightly absurd premise of the film’s “your paranoia is real” plot.   Then again, any cast featuring the likes of Gene Hackman, Jason Robards Jr., and Jon Voight,  all Academy Award winning actors, is going to force Smith to step his game up in a way Martin Lawrenece just doesn’t.

But Smith doesn’t stray too far from his comfort zone.  Playing unlikeable losers, screwed-up failures or really bad guys is something Smith hasn’t done and he shows no indication of straying too far from his blockbuster blueprint.

Thus far, I’ve yet to see Smith’s most notable “serious” roles;  The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali. In the case of Smith playing the part of Muhammad Ali, I blame it on my own personal prejudice.   Ali is just too a larger-than-life persona for even Smith to do justice to.   Despite the presence of an accomplished director like Michael (Heat, Collaterial) Mann, I stayed as far away from Ali as possible.    No matter how ripped and built he got for the part, Smith is still “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” first and foremost.   That’s not a easy transition to the Greatest of All Time.

I’m a bit more inclined to see The Pursuit of Happyness.  Based on a true story, it shows up on my cable movie channel ever now and then.   I just have a nagging feeling it’s gong to be a tearjerker for 3/4 of the the way and then cop out for the standard Hollywood ending in the last ten minutes.

The odd thing is these performances that have earned Smith some of his best reviews and two Best Actor Academy Award nominations.   Standing between him and going home with the gold was Denzel Washington in 2001 (Training Day) and Forest Whitaker in 2006 (The Last King of Scotland).

Nobody’s expecting Hancock to snatch any acting nominations.   This is money making time for Smith, but he’s at a point in his career where he only has to make movies when they interest him.   Smith has the potential to not only make merely entertaining films but at some point a significant one.   That could mean risking alienating the faithful by playing a  (gasp!) unlikable role such as a murderer or a drug addict or a down-on-his-luck loser who dies like a sick dog in the last five minutes.

Then again, why should Will Smith take any advice from me?   Young, gifted, Black and paid, it seems like his life’s plan has come together pretty well without my help.