C’mon Hollywood: Time for Will Smith to step up his game!

Last week M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, AFTER EARTH, debuted to $27 million, matching the opening gross of star Will Smith’s last sci-fi flop, WILD WILD WEST. Could the irony be any thicker? For Smith, it’s been a while since he’s sunk that low, especially in the summer season sci-fi genre. Of course, it’s been a while since Smith has done anything really remarkable to begin with. Last summer he phoned it in for MEN IN BLACK III, which wasn’t a complete bust financially (it still made less than the first two overall), but wasn’t exactly reinvigorating to his career.

Smith took a long hiatus between 2008 and 2012, emerging back on the scene with the safe MEN IN BLACK sequel and then leaped into AFTER EARTH, bringing his son, Jaden, into the mix, much to the chagrin of audiences everywhere. It’s not the sounding call of a return to form for the actor, who has demonstrated some true skill, charisma, and presence in his better films. Ultimately, Smith has played it safe, with a few deviations into rockier territory in films like SEVEN POUNDS, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, and THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, making the actor look like he may be losing his touch with not only audiences, but the craft as well.

The most notorious and unsettling story of Smith’s troubles came when he declined the lead role in Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED. Just because Tarantino offers you a role doesn’t mean that you should fall to your knees and gratefully accept, but I think the issue with Smith’s refusal is that it would’ve done something great for his career. Having seen the finished film with Jamie Foxx in the lead, one can only imagine Smith taking on the role, which is far more challenging and controversial than anything Smith has played throughout his long career. Whether one thinks he would’ve handled it as well, worse, or better than Foxx is irrelevant, because the most important aspect is that it would’ve changed Smith as an actor, most likely for the better.

“Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead!” was what Smith told Entertainment Weekly. He says a lot about his perception of himself as an actor and about the kind of career he chases in that statement, neither of which do him any favors.  Smith, it seems, has been too busy building a career out of a paradigm, rather than out of his passion for the work. Instead of choosing projects that challenge him, change him, or alter his image in any way, he has instead chosen to play some variation of the same role over and over again; himself. Will Smith as shady superhero (HANCOCK). Will Smith as gun-toting scientist (I AM LEGEND). Will Smith as futuristic cop (I, ROBOT). Will Smith as…Will Smith (HITCH).

The same could be said about Tom Cruise, who has made a string of films that follow a very similar model. However, Cruise has a much better track record (the best, in fact) and typically chooses to work with the industry’s finest, whereas Smith is nowhere near as keen. While Smith has dabbled in dramatic fare, he’s never delivered anything as powerful as Cruise’s Ron Kovic in BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY or JERRY MAGUIRE or Frank T.J. Mackie in MAGNOLIA. I compare these two actors, because of their reputation as box office draws and tendency to bank on themselves more so than the role at hand. Where as Cruise has had tremendous success with his model, Smith has been spotty at best, with his breakout film, INDEPENDENCE DAY, still being his most successful.  While Smith has most certainly had a rewarding career, he has remained relatively safe in his choices, never meandering far from the reservation, which has left audiences with bland expectations.  

Since the tanking of AFTER EARTH, even Smith has started to see the light, saying in a press interview, "It's been an absolute necessity that the movie be a blockbuster, but I think I'm going to start moving out of that and finding more danger in my artistic choices." So, does that mean we’ll finally see the actor take on the roles he’s capable of? One can only hope. Smith has a number of projects lined up, including the con man pic FOCUS, the Hurricane Katrina drama AMERICAN CAN, the assassin thriller THE ACCOUNTANT, and the currently filming WINTER’S TALE for Akiva Goldsman.

While some of those may give Smith some potentially challenging roles, the bottom line is that he needs to start choosing projects that scare him and challenge his audience’s perception of who he is and what he has to offer. There’s plenty of room for blockbusters and meaty roles, but having too much of one without the other has made Smith an easy to dismiss niche actor devoid of surprises. It’s time to break away from the formulaic, CGI-infused world of blockbuster hyperbole and jump into roles that push him out of the nest and into a realm where he can seize his full potential.

Source: JoBlo.com

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