(Separating the Men from the Boys) Is Will Smith still a “Movie Star?”

Is Will Smith Still a “Movie Star?”
By Bret Dorman

Fact: Will Smith hasn’t been in a movie since 2008 (Hancock & Seven Pounds).
Fact: Men in Black 3 debuted at #1 this past Memorial Day Weekend, but at $55 mil.
The Argument: Despite the numbers, something in Smith’s performance has changed…

Before we get into the meat of this, let’s clarify where I’m coming from. Here are the different levels of acting:

Bad Acting – Actors seem uncomfortable and/or unrealistic.

Good Acting – Actors can convincingly deliver dialogue. The don’t draw attention or distract.

Great Acting – Actors ACT comfortable and do so believably. They also draw a bit of attention to themselves (in a good way).

Movie Star – Actors ARE comfortable. They exude a certain ‘X Factor,’ transport you into the magical world of the movie, while still keeping you aware of their own persona. They seem to be operating on a whole different level. They alone can pull audiences into a film, become a brand in and of themselves, and star in ridiculous Summer Blockbusters that are also highly entertaining.

Movie Star is not necessarily better than Great Actor, its just a rare type of one. You must be a Great Actor to be a Movie Star, but not every Great Actor is a Movie Star.

Tom Cruise is one of the best Movie Stars. Despite is crazy antics and stupid (I mean, silly…) religion interfering with his career, M:I:4 was extremely enjoyable for many reasons including Cruise. He’s comfortable in front of the camera, he makes you believe the world of M:I and Ethan Hunt’s troubles, yet at the same time is never NOT Tom Cruise.

Cruise Vs Giamatti! FIGHT!

Paul Giamatti is a Great Actor. But he never headlines any major blockbusters and even his ‘silly roles’ like the baddie from Shoot ‘Em Up seem a bit disingenuous (although still fun) as opposed to his roles in Sideways or Win/Win. I would not consider Tom Cruise above Paul Giamotti, although yes, I would consider them on the same level (albeit different ends of the Great spectrum).

Smith AND Jones

Will Smith burst into the Hollywood Blockbuster Action scene with Bad Boys (1995), followed by Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), Enemy of the State (1998), and finally Wild Wild West (1999). All of these movies feature Smith as the leading Co-Star (or in the case of ID4… one of many main-ish characters). Because he was still new, untested, and co-starring, Smith had something to prove. He had to make people take notice while not stealing the show to the detriment of the overall enjoyment of the film. Like with improv, sometimes the best thing to do is make everyone else around you look good. Enemy of the State had Smith helping Hackman look like an action hero while Hackman helped Smith look like a serious actor.

Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) and Ali (2001) had him trying out his heavier acting guns, one more successfully than the other. Like many up and coming stars who get rich and famous on a ‘gimmick’, Smith had to try to prove to America and himself that he was indeed a Great Actor. His work as Muhammad Ali got him an Oscar Nom.

Now having an Oscar Nom and pre-built fan base… Smith could move into sequel territory. Men in Black 2 (2002) and the awesomely incredible Bad Boys 2 (2003) both performed well and helped cement Smith as not just a reliable actor, but as a bankable star. He was free to headline in his own movie, the underrated I, Robot (2004).

Smith then went silly comedy with Hitch (2005), another Oscar try with Pursuit of Happyness (2006), and another movie confirming Smith could not only be the lead actor, but the only actor… I Am Legend (2007). While I am not a huge fan of Legend, it is arguably his last “great” Will Smith movie.

Whatchyu mean I’m not a super hero in REAL life?

Hancock (2008) tried to bank in on Smith and the whole super hero craze. The Dark Knight proved you need more than star power. It helps to have a real superhero as well as a good script and strong villain. Ledger’s death may have helped push TDK into one of the best box office opening’s yet, but the movie was good enough to deserve and maintain it’s box office crushing status for a couple of weeks.

Seven Pounds (2008) was a Crash-style piece of garbage. Many people saw it before me and told me it would “change my life.” Really? … REALLY?! The movie was super sap concentrate squeezed into one ridiculous script that feels like a bad Hallmark movie. Red Herring (Spoiler!) Alert: If a filmmaker focuses on gratuitous JELLYFISH shots in the first act of the movie, there’s a good chance its coming back in the third act. But as THE major plot point? Come on…

Will Smith has since been on a self-imposed hiatus. Romance troubles that may or may not be real have littered tabloid magazines. Scientology rumblings may have scared some away after The Cruise Disaster. His kids have since become stars and he’s been helping them I’m sure. So why after 4 years does he choose MiB as his big comeback movie?

Legend did okay and was met with mixed critical responses. Hancock did okay and was met with negative responses. Seven Pounds opened at #1 but to a meager 15 mil and critics were not kind. Smith did not NEED to come back. I’m sure he has enough money for several lifetimes. I also heard that his trailer is ridiculous. A 55ft behemoth with its own full size gym and kitchen and a 100 ft roll down movie screen? Yeah… That’s the problem.

Smith slapping the silly guy whose shtick it is to kiss celebrities. MANLINESS!

Movie Stars sometimes get a little too comfortable. Comfortable in the luxury that fame brings with it; thus losing the fight to try and prove themselves. Smith no longer has to prove anything to anyone. He’s won. Now, instead of trying to entertain by impressing us, he’s simply out to do his “Will Smith” thing and try to recapture that lightning in a bottle. The problem is… in MiB3, he doesn’t have the Movie Star quality of BEING comfortable. He is ACTING comfortable. The difference is tiny, but its there, its tangible.

The first MiB had Smith in a role he could relate to. An energetic, zealous new comer who has to prove his worth in an elite establishment filled with old pros? Yeah… sounds like Smith and Hollywood. In this scene the tension comes from Smith being himself and whether or not that’s the right move. His last line is sure to get a laugh:

MiB3 has Smith as a Senior Agent who is just as good as Jones. Because they are now on the same level, the movie has to find a new source of tension. To do this, they litter the first act with Agent K is old jokes (Agent J: “I’m getting too old for this… I can only imagine how YOU feel!” har har). Then the tension is drained as Smith travels back in time. Because Agent J, even as a junior agent, is so good, he doesn’t question the time travel aspect and continues to be a good agent, as always. So Smith just runs around following him doing his “That’s Crazy!” thing and trying to re-capture that antagonistic, youthful, rebelliousness from the first:

What movies does IMDB have for Smith next? After Earth, an M Night Shyamalan movie (Good Luck…), Winter’s Tale (rumored) a fairy tale ish story (note Smith falling back on the popular genre again… see: Hancock). And of course… Hancock 2, Bad Boys 3, and I, Robot 2… all rumored, but all ‘safe’ sequels nonetheless. Smith has gone from charismatic newbie to someone who could be replaced by a CGI-Holographic representation of himself and pimped out for money and box office returns. His performance in MiB3 is not bad, but it’s just is too phoned in… the ‘X Factor’ is gone… as well as the good scripts and desire to be ‘The Greatest.’

Fuck. Yeah.

Its a shame he turned down Tarantino’s Django Unchained. While Jamie Foxx may or may not be better (I know he’ll be good), the truth is Django didn’t need Smith as much as Smith needed Django. Tarantino has a way of not only ‘reviving’ careers, but utilizing actors to get some of their best performances. Bruce Willis is in a bunch of action movies, but his role as Butch in Pulp Fiction features some of his best ‘Willis’ staredowns. Samuel L. Jackson will never escape his Ezekial 25:17 monologue. Uma Thurman is at her best with QT and Darryl Hannah is 100% badass in Kill Bill. Inglourious Basterds got Christoph Waltz the Oscar gold and Brad Pitt is MEGA Movie Star as Aldo the Apache (ah-ree-ver-der-chee). The list goes on…

Whatever the reason Smith declined… the simple truth is he better make some smart decisions in the near future. People will come out for MiB3 because the choices are rather slim right now and everyone has already seen The Avengers… twice, if not more. Doing a bunch of pop-genre knockoffs and unwanted sequels (well… I do REALLY want Bad Boys 3…) just won’t make the cut anymore.

Careers have their ebbs and flows. Bill Murray went through a bit of a rough patch but found his second wind. Bruce Willis is continually doing shitty movies followed by brilliant movies. Adam Sandler has been stuck at new found low points for a long time now. Whether its Smith, his choice in movies, or people are just plain sick and tired of him… I’ll always be rooting for him. Maybe one day he can help a newcomer out like Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones did with him.

Although the way things are going now… it seems like that newcomer might be his son…

All Hail Jaden Smith!

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