The relatively soft earnings of Focus last weekend ($18.7 million) have been interpreted as a sign that Will Smith is, at age 45, one step closer to being over. Or…you know, not mattering like he used to. From Six Degrees of Separation (’93) to Ali (’01) Smith did matter. He seemed embedded in the culture and vice versa. If Smith had declared in the wake of Ali that he would make no more films, I would have felt surprised and a bit turned around. It wouldn’t have felt right. But if Smith were to announce today that he’s retiring from acting in order to direct or produce, I wouldn’t blink an eye.
Smith is likable enough but I’ve never liked him that much. He’s more of a glib, glad-handing salesman than a real-deal actor. He seems to prefer ingratiating personality projects to movies, and has always seem too focused on being in big hits. His taste in films tends to run toward CG paycheck fantasies or sappy emotional stuff. I didn’t care for The Pursuit of Happyness and I hated Seven Pounds, and when he made After Earth I said “okay, that’s it, I’m off the boat.”
Smith will keep going, of course, and he might get lucky. He plays a good-guy doctor (technically a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist) in Concussion, which may be a good thing. And then in August 2016 comes Suicide Squad, a DC Comics/Warner Bros. release. But what after that? If you were Smith how would you fix things?
I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d put out the word that I don’t want to make Will Smith movies any more. I’d basically do a Matthew McConaughey and tell everybody that the thing I’ve been doing since the ’90s isn’t working any more and that I know it, and that I’m trying a different approach. I’d say I want to be soft clay and work with a major-league director or two. I want to adapt and learn and submit and be adventurous. Except no more films in which I kill myself by getting stung by jellyfish.