The career decisions of Will Smith are ones that shock, appall, delight, and confuse. He’s done everything from Oscar bait family dramas, to action flicks, to whatever the hell Wild Wild West was. For years people flocked to see him in family friendly comedies and science fiction movies where he and Tommy Lee Jones blow things up in a fury of green ooze and blue lasers. He was birthed out of the cinematic desert of the 1990’s, making an excellent film debut in Six Degrees of Separation.
The kid-friendly rapper-turned-actor, who had the nonchalance of a teenager and the gravitas of a serious actor when he needed it, had made it and we all loved him for it. The man acted like it was something natural, but if one looked closely, it was clear he was trying to do well. He cared. The massive success on Smith’s part is not much of a surprise. He is gifted with a natural charisma and likability that made him a big box office draw. When Smith walked into a film, he carried a swagger that charmed the pants off of everyone in the theater. His presence shouted “I am the best person in this movie.” And most of the time? He was right. The studios were charmed as well. He got his own hit television show and much more. Then, something happened.
Somewhere around the latter half of the 2000s, fresh off an Oscar nomination and a batch of hits, Smith disappeared. One of the richest men in Hollywood, one of the most profitable human beings to grace this ball of water and rock simply decided to stop doing what he did. Was it because of how bad Seven Pounds was? Was it to take care of his children? Regardless of what it was, it hurt Smith badly. His massive star power was not gone, but it had diminished. His big “comeback” film was the uber-forgettable Men In Black 3. One of his most recent roles involved him in an almost uncredited role as Satan in the hilariously terrible Winter’s Tale.
A man who once awed audiences as Muhammad Ali has become somewhat of a joke. His children are an awful caricature of over-privileged Hollywood youth, and much of the publicity Smith seems to be getting is all speculation as to whether or not he is a Scientologist. Right now, Smith is probably laughing at articles like this in his giant California mansion, because despite his recent missteps, the guy is still Will Smith, and in this endlessly strange and tumultuous world, being Will Smith gets you places.
Will he ever reach the heights of Independence Day or I, Robot again? Probably not, but knowing Will Smith, that’s no reason for him to stop. And who knows? Maybe he’ll pull a Matthew McConaughey and turn things completely around. Maybe he’ll do one role that blows everyone so out of their seats that he wins an Oscar and regains his place at the eternal Hollywood table. If not, Smith will always be there in Ali, or Men in Black, or The Pursuit of Happyness. That’s the beauty of the movies. Even when those we love have gone on to finance the futile careers of their spoiled children, we can still return to their glory days in the cinema of the past. Humphrey Bogart has been dead for years, but that doesn’t stop people from enjoying him to this very day.
We can all continue to be utterly confounded at the choices he makes, but in the end Smith is the real winner here and always has been. To misquote Fitzgerald, Will Smith beats on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. We are all stuck in the present, but Will Smith? He is timeless, and he always will be. In life, things can be uncertain and frightening. We as a people need constants like Will Smith to keep us at ease. The stock market will fluctuate, relatives will die, but Will Smith will always be here and he will always be interesting. Whether or not he decides to do another After Earth is up to him, but I will always defend Will Smith because he is a necessity, and it does not matter if people realize it or not. So smile, sit back and put Bad Boys II back in the Blu-Ray player, because everything is going to be alright. Will Smith is here to stay.
Independence Day, 20th Century Fox