Twenty-seven million dollars. Flat. That’s what After Earth, Will Smith’s new science-fiction epic/offspring-stardom delivery system, grossed at the box office this weekend. Plainly, this is a disaster. Once upon a time, Will Smith wouldn’t get out of one of the many mahogany beds in his 25,000-square-foot “sylvan Shangri-la” for that kind of money. Today, he may be left wondering what went wrong. To put the number in context, 16 films released this year have grossed more than $27 million in their opening weekend, and that includes the January thriller Mama, which starred Jessica Chastain and two feral moppets; 42, a period piece about a baseball player starring an actor you have never heard of; the long-shelved and mostly disliked fairy tale reboot Jack the Giant Slayer; and this weekend’s no. 2 entry Now You See Me, a movie about magicians who rob banks. It is barely June.
Now, nearing 45 years old, Smith remains a massive movie star, a beloved icon of ’90s nostalgia, and a purveyor of enjoyable “clean rap.” But he may find himself at a crisis point.
The teenagers of the world have never known an interesting Will Smith. They were not alive for the heyday of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They did not soundtrack their cookouts with “Summertime.” They did not cheer when Captain Steven Hiller helped Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson implant an alien spaceship with a computer virus to save the world in Independence Day. For all they know, Will Smith is just some annoying kids’ dad. Now think back yourself: What is your favorite Will Smith movie? Was it in the last 10 years? (Last week’s Q&A with son Jaden in New York Magazine doesn’t count, though it had a certain magical realism in its Patterns. Boom. mythology.) It likely was not. In fact, there actually are not many good Will Smith movies. There are certainly successful ones, box office winners that very likely vanished from your heart shortly after exiting the theater. Hitch has its fans. There are already so few above-the-title leading men left who can carry a movie. Is Will Smith, Movie Star in trouble? Here are six solutions for fixing a falling star.
1. Put Yourself in an Auteur’s Hands Now … and Join an Ensemble
Here’s a dirty little secret about Smith: He likes his directors to be pushovers and nobodies and wounded artists and paycheck men. Look at the last 10 years of his filmography. You’ll find names like Gabriele Muccino, Andy Tennant, Francis Lawrence, Alex Proyas, and Gabriele Muccino again. I’m sure they’re nice guys, but not one of them is an important, or even interesting, filmmaker. They are functionaries, workers in an ecosystem of corporate strategy. Armchair psychologists can apply some movie-star math here: Will Smith wants control of his projects. He wants to be able to rewrite scripts and determine the angles he’s shot from and decide who plays his love interest (if he ever has another one in his films). The unraveling of After Earth reportedly began with Smith’s insistence that iconoclastic box office poison copperhead M. Night Shyamalan direct the film. This, of course, was a confusing choice, since Shyamalan is neither a sci-fi guru nor in demand at the moment. Smith may have been able to leverage that in his conception of the film. But that was also likely its undoing. According to Nikki Finke, “even an arrogant know-it-all like Shyamalan was aware the pic didn’t work but couldn’t fix it on his own.”
Last week in his review of After Earth, Grantland’s Alex Pappademas zeroed in on Smith’s decision not to portray Django in Quentin Tarantino’s gonzo slavery revenge saga. This was obviously a terrible decision; a role like Django would have reasserted a credibility among longtime fans, introduced a new kind of anarchic verve to his calcifying I’m a fun dad, I swear persona, and perhaps even made Will Smith seem a little dangerous. His decision to turn down the role, largely because his character didn’t get to kill the movie’s big bad, seems particularly addled by movie-star logic. Smith was clouded by a marginal detail, neglecting to acknowledge that rewriting Quentin Tarantino is like putting a saddle on a zebra; you can do it, but it looks all wrong.
It has been 12 years since Smith entrusted his brand with a director of note, for 2002’s Ali with Michael Mann; it was a movie that desperately wanted to be great and never quite got there, largely for reasons of conception and execution. It’s the best Smith has ever been as an actor, even if he’s not quite right in the part. The previous year, Smith worked with another lauded filmmaker when he starred in The Legend of Bagger Vance, a colossal miscalculation helmed by Robert Redford and co-starring an ascendant Matt Damon. Were two consecutive not quite efforts at prestige the reason he turned his back on these kinds of movies? Maybe.
What Smith needs is Steven Soderbergh. Or Spike Jonze. Or the Coen Brothers. Hell, see what Takashi Miike has going. He needs to take a swing at something unlikely and strange. Not just because that would be fun for everyone to write about, but also because Will Smith’s charisma could use a challenge. Is he still funny? Can he be mean? Can he make you feel something? Men in Black 3, by design, doesn’t really demand much of its audience. These directors could do that for him. And by the same token, it might be a good idea to let Smith surround himself with superior talent. The last time I can remember an actor hanging in against him was Charlize Theron in Hancock, which is a real movie that came out that is about a drunk superhero.
Smith’s next role is reportedly as part of the ensemble in Mr. Fix-It screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s directorial debut, Winter’s Tale. But his part seems small, and the mythical story, set in 19th-century New York, involves a flying horse. Colin Farrell plays the lead. Do with that what you will. Imagine Smith in a Frank T.J. Mackey–esque role. A wild-eyed charlatan. A man without morals. A diva with inescapable charm. We can all see it. Now he should let us see it.
2. Reunite With Michael Bay
Once he’s gotten the art out of his system, he can go home again. Only this time, it will be returning to the warm embrace of Hollywood’s favorite megalomaniacal, set-piece-orchestrating, morality-defying hyper-genius-baby-monster-money machine. And right now, they need each other. For years, Bay talked about the “little movie” he’d been yearning to make, a madcap comedy-crime thriller about a trio of lunkhead bodybuilders who rob a businessman blind. That movie became April’s overcooked, only modestly successful Pain & Gain, which looks increasingly like one of the most depraved and bizarre studio movies of the decade; not quite funny, but also not quite dark enough to honor its disturbing true-life story. Now picture Pain & Gain minus one Anthony Mackie and plus one Will Smith in the same part: COMIC GOLD. Would this movie have been more successful? Perhaps not. But it would have been more enjoyable to see Rebel Wilson plunge a syringe into Will Smith’s Big Willie.
Bad Boys 3 has been rumored for a few years now, and Bay and Smith have a psychic connection — they owe each other their careers in many ways. When I interviewed Smith in 2011, he told me, “[Bay] can take things that normally you’d think of as being corny, and he makes it super-galactic iconic … that shot [from Bad Boys], running across the bridge, my shirt open with the gun — that single image took me from a comedic television actor to a potential movie star. With that single image, the scripts that I started to get offered changed dramatically. It was the first time that I heard women react to me with an audible gasp.” These guys understand each other. And while Bad Boys 3 would no doubt be a perfectly reasonable vehicle for 360-degree shots of a shootout in a Mexican coke den, there’s more to be done. May we suggest the true story of British sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba?
3. Send Jaden and Willow to Boarding School
Here’s what we’ve gotten from the non-Will members of the Smith family this decade: The Karate Kid, a shameful and unnecessary remake; “Whip My Hair,” which, no; “The Coolest”; and, if we’re getting Mrs. Smith involved, the stylings of Wicked Wisdom and TNT’s Hawthorne. So, not a great few years there.
Willow, who was long tabbed to star in her father’s co-production (along with Jay-Z) of a new Annie musical, dropped out earlier this year, citing being 12 as too old for the famous orphan. Willow’s music career also appears to be on hold indefinitely. Jaden, who, if we’re being honest, seems to think he’s got everything figured out for a 14-year-old (and as Will Smith’s son, basically does), will be trickier to stymie. Willow is ready for a break. Jaden needs to have the failure of After Earth explained to him, followed by an extended retreat. Solution: boarding school. And we’re not talking about Choate or Exeter. Think the learning center that Earl Sweatshirt was marooned on in Samoa. Someplace where there is no Internet, no Garage Band, no iMovie, nowhere to put all that creativity.
To Willow and Jaden: Bottle those creative powers. Save them. Give them to another generation, when we are all dead. And let Papa Will focus on his career some more. Your pursuits have distracted him. (Spa weekend for Jada is optional.)
4. Rap Again, With Kanye West
In February, Smith and Kanye West were photographed together in the studio. Last month, Smith revealed that he had been recording with Kanye. “I’ve been messing around with Kanye. We went in the studio a couple times, so I might get the bug. I’m not going to do it unless I’m truly inspired, but Ye’s been pushing me a little bit.” This is great news, especially if Smith finds himself inspired by “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead.” I have literally been waiting 25 years for Will Smith’s militant punk-rap phase. What’s the worst that could happen? Don’t answer that.
5. Find a New Role Model
Tom Cruise is the movie star of his generation, the man for whom the word feels most appropriate, the gold standard. But Tom Cruise is almost never (purposefully) funny. Or human. There is something too committed, too manic, and too present about him. The stories of his fervid excitement on-set are legion. They’re also creepy. Smith and Cruise may have a few other things in common. Smith and Cruise are friends. Smith has fashioned his protected, measured version of stardom after Cruise. This may not be the blueprint he wants to follow, depending on how he feels about exposés. This is not your hero, Will. He is your fate. Find a new role model and pal. Jamie Foxx sure seems to be doing well these days.
6. No More Patterns
There is notable Hollywood lore about Overbrook Entertainment, Smith’s production company with former manager and partner James Lassiter: Shortly after his success in the $300 million–grossing Independence Day, Lassiter and Smith commissioned a kind of study examining the greatest box office success stories of all time, looking at filmmakers, genres, franchise opportunities, and inconsistencies in the market. Overbrook fancied itself a kind of Oakland Athletics of Hollywood, homing in on sci-fi extravaganzas (I, Robot, Wild Wild West) and buddy movies (Men in Black, Bad Boys 2), superheroes (Hancock) and aquatic cartoons (Shark Tale). All of these movies have a more successful analogue on the all-time box office top 50 list. This is not a mistake. For some insight into Lassiter’s thinking, look back at this 2008 profile in Variety, which is caked in a vague kind of Hollywoodspeak. “If you get an emotion that everyone can relate to, that translates through all languages and all cultures,” he says at one point, a pointed acknowledgment of global pursuit. This strategizing extends beyond the box office. In that New York conversation, Smith also alluded to a formula regarding the Academy Awards: “Like for Best Actor Oscars. Almost 90 percent of the time, it’s mental illness and historical figures, right? So, you can be pretty certain of that if you want to win — as a man; it’s very different for women.”
Smith, of course, portrayed Muhammad Ali and also men who were, if not “mentally ill” in The Pursuit of Happyness and Seven Pounds, self-immolating forces of despair. These choices were conscious stabs at credibility, accessibility, fame, prestige, hardware. When an actor or a writer or any other creative type makes a choice like this, it feels cynical, a cold gambit for meaningless appreciation. When a general manager in sports does the same, he or she is lauded for identifying the unfilled nooks with prescient business sense or a shamanistic cure. Will Smith wants an Oscar. He must be shallow. Daryl Morey wants an NBA championship. He is an icon of thought. But movies aren’t sports, much as we try to conflate the two. Movies are the most imprecise business, with quicksilver tendencies and unpredictable reactions. Thousand of jobs are won and lost on the strength of scores of market research striving to find the next Twilight or Madagascar. That Smith has rappelled down the snake pit with the notion that he has answers to these impossible curiosities is his greatest flaw. You can’t solve what no one understands. William Goldman once wrote, “No one knows anything.” Jaden Smith said it better: “It’s beyond mathematical. It’s, like, multidimensional mathematical, if you can sort of understand what I’m saying.”