When you say you’re seeing a Will Smith movie, that’s exactly what you mean. It’s a Will Smith movie because his roles and his carefully crafted public persona are indistinguishable. He’s never come off as anything other than a fun, charming, and slightly goofy guy, who will get serious when it matters (but only when it matters). It’s impossible to dislike Will Smith, unless you hate fun and crave robot enslavement. Since I am a fun-destroying buzzkill, though, let’s examine what Big Willie Style is.
Excluding The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-96), Ali (2001), Hitch (2005), and the sappy dramas (The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Seven Pounds (2008), and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)), Smith has been almost exclusively an action hero. Most of his films have involved the eradiction of aliens or robots (Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), I, Robot (2004), and Wild Wild West (1999)), being a troubled, badass cop/superhero (the Bad Boys franchise (1995-2003), Hancock (2008)), and sprinting from the government (Enemy of the State (1998)). You can even lump the Bad Boys movies and Hancock in the alien/robot category—the character Hancock is basically an alien and the drug dealers in Bad Boys are such dehumanized stereotypes that they might as well be aliens.
So the Fresh Prince has a type. That’s fine. He’s good at it, and his movies bank a lot of money every opening weekend. No one’s going to blame him. It just sucks that, as Bill Simmons puts it, he’s basically the Chris Webber of acting—he could have been the best, but he just doesn’t want it.
I have three main complaints: 1.) He’s rarely less of an outsider than the robots/aliens/Colombian cartels he battles; 2.) He never has to push himself because he plays a type and not a character; and 3.) His movies reflect a cold, callous exploitation of a dull, shitty studio system.
This is a controversial statement, but perhaps the greatest trick that Will Smith ever pulled was to make Middle America forget that he’s black. Michael Jordan was the first to do this—people didn’t just want to “be like Mike,” as the slogan went. They wanted to be him (“Republicans buy shoes too” really helped).
Will Smith is in the same category. He’s not talked about in the same way as Denzel Washington, Chris Rock, and Spike Lee, partly because he never puts race at the forefront of any of his movies, so much so that it’s rarely addressed at all. Yes, he does say “This relationship isn’t going to work. You’re a cat, I’m black . . . ” in I, Robot. But it’s a throwaway line, and it’s funny. Shall we say that he’s not interested in making Remember the Titans (2000) and Do the Right Thing (1989)?
Instead, Smith’s the “smooth other guy” in any duo. He’s the guy with swag, next to nerdy Jeff Goldblum, no-nonsense Tommy Lee Jones, poindexter Kevin Kline, uptight Martin Lawrence, clumsy Kevin James, and Carlton. It’s a more subtle way of othering him. He’s cooler than everyone else for some reason; we just can’t tell why—until we realize who the costars are. Yes, you can say he’s cooler than everyone because he’s Will Smith. But there’s something else at work there.
There’s a story about Six Degrees of Separation, Smith’s first important movie and last indie role. The film was released in 1993, when he was the Fresh Prince and only the Fresh Prince. Smith—rather uncharacteristically—plays a gay con artist. And he nails it. He completely proves his talent. But when it came down to a scene where he had to kiss his partner (played by Anthony Michael Hall), he refused. The scene was recut so that we see the back of his head and hear a sound effect. Whatever his reasoning, it’s not a big deal. It’s just a little disappointing that he wasn’t willing to push himself out of his comfort zone. Six Degrees of Separation was done so Smith could prove he was a movie star. Once he proved it, it was straight to Bad Boys, ID4, and beyond.
The whole reason that I’m disappointed comes from Smith himself. He and his manager, James Lassiter, studied box office numbers. As he told Time Magazine in 2007, his goal when he went to Hollywood was to be the biggest movie star in the world. So Lassiter compiled a list of the top ten highest-grossing movies of all time. Ten out of ten had special effects, and you can bet on big special effects here. Escapism, reason-to-put-the-kids-in-AC-for-two-hours, banks-worldwide-because-the-dialogue-isn’t-too-nuanced kind of blockbusters. Continuing in Smith’s words, “Nine out of 10 had special effects with creatures. Eight out of 10 had special effects and a love story.”
Will Smith movies make money. They’re easy and familiar. When my father and I discussed MIB III, we both said, “Well, sequels suck, but it’s been fifteen years since the first one, and I bet this one will be fun.” We’re both going to see it, probably in theaters.
Smith’s got this line of reasoning mapped out, too—his IMDb page is filled with sequel rumors for I, Robot 2, Bad Boys 3, and Hancock 2. It’s going to be fun. In his MIB III review, CT’s own Mike Mierendorf has said exactly what I want to hear in a sequel review: “K is still old, cranky, and by the book. J is still the fun, sarcastic, ambitious, and unpredictable agent.” The characters haven’t changed, so we can get more of what we love without taking any risks.
Then again, isn’t that the point? Even twenty years later, Smith is still Big Willie Style and nothing else. He’s not George Clooney, coasting through blockbusters so he can fund passion projects like Good Night and Good Luck (2005). He’s not Leonardo DiCaprio, working on ambitious, weird, and artsy projects with genius directors and talented actors that push him to higher highs. He’s not Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, willing to risk likability for roles like Dreamcatcher (2003), Lucky Number Slevin (2006), Training Day (2001), and American Gangster (2007).
The most extreme opposite of Smith is probably Daniel Day-Lewis, who is choosy with his roles because he’s so committed to the craft of acting. Day-Lewis will only take roles if the script, director, and cast are worth his time. It appears that Smith will only take roles if the money is worth his time. From the Time article: “His pragmatism outweighs his passion. ‘Pursuit of Happyness . . . That’s nowhere near my fee for that movie.’” Take a second and process that: an Oscar-nominated role in which he launched his son Jaden’s acting career, and he worried about his fee.
It comes down to what a career means. Money is great, but what did you do with your life? Is there that much of a difference between “Made a whole bunch of decent-to-good movies, grossed $4 billion” and “Made a few great movies, a few good movies that could have been great, a few terrible movies, a few blockbusters, grossed $1 billion”?
I’m sure that the Fresh Prince has no regrets, and I’m not saying that he should. It’s just disappointing that someone with his drive, talent, charisma, and magnetism never wanted to see what was in the artistic great beyond. And we’re going to keep rewarding him for coasting because the movies are fun, he’s likeable, and we need two hours of AC for our screaming kids. Hollywood, everybody!