Will Smith is a likeable, constantly relevant figure in Hollywood. How does he do it?
Will Smith, son of Philadelphia, is 50 years old and perhaps just as relevant as he has ever been. Gone are the days of the clean rapping sitcom star, gone are the days of being America’s most bankable leading man (8 movies clearing the 100 million dollar mark from 2002-2008), and here we find ourselves in the Mt. Rushmore era of Smith’s career. He is still making giant movies, including last weekend’s live(ish) action remake of Aladdin, and is still omnipresent as a cultural force. How has he done this for so long, and through the highs and few lows of his career? How has Smith ridden out initial stardom, peak career, the inevitable slump that accompanies oversaturation, and glided so successfully into his twilight? Expectation management.
Smith started his career as one half of the Grammy winning rap group DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, with Jeffrey Townes on the tables as DJ and Smith adopting the moniker "The Fresh Prince." Their musical success led to the 1990 sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a bona fide hit with broad but seemingly sincere takes on after-school special fare that still claims scores of nostalgia seeking fans nearly 30 years later. The Fresh Prince was your friend.
Smith’s film and music career took off in the subsequent years, the one two box office punch of 1996’s Independence Day and 1997’s Men in Black propelling him into the stratosphere of 90’s stardom. He segued his heightened recognizability and vast popularity into a successful music career, with his 1998 debut album Big Willie Style going on to become certified platinum nine times over.
Ron Silver, Will Smith and Jamie Foxx on the set of "Ali" - Peter Brandt/Getty Images
Smith continued to permeate popular culture. He married actress Jada Pinkett, a massive star in her own right. He made successful action movies (Bad Boys II, I, Robot, I am Legend), ubiquitous rom-coms like Hitch, and garnered Oscar nominations for his roles in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, films that were moderately received by critics outside of his performance. After the box office success of and critically lukewarm reception to the anti-superhero Smith vehicle Hancock, he made his first huge mistake (excepting Wild Wild West). Smith went full schlock, starring in the overwrought, emotionally manipulative and poorly considered Seven Pounds. It made over $150 million, but was razed by critics. Smith didn’t make another movie for four years.
He returned with Men in Black 3, a major success. He made the largely forgotten and comically wrongheaded After Earth with his son Jaden. He had a few more moderate hits with Focus and Concussion, both receiving fair box office hauls and resounding “mehs” from critics. Suicide Squad was hated by the public and critics alike, but was raked in hundreds of millions in ticket sales.
Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith and their son Jaden Smith at the premiere of "Focus" - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
In the intervening years, his children with Pinkett-Smith, son Jaden and daughter Willow, had become stars. Jaden starred alongside Jackie Chan in 2010’s successful Karate Kid remake and built a brand for himself by tweeting exceptionally dumb shit disguised as galaxy brain musings. He has released two albums of middling pastiche rap. Willow had a massive hit in 2010 with “Whip my Hair,” released when she was merely ten years old. Both have millions of instagram followers and an inescapable cultural presence. As Will stepped into the background, making comfortable semi-dramas with moderate to poor results (looking at you, Collateral Beauty), his children carried on the omnipresence of the Smith Brand.
Every choice Smith makes is a safe one. He makes crowd-pleasers that swing for the cheap seats and sentimental dramas that your aunt posts about on Facebook. He is a friendly face in a welcoming setting, giving you easy themes with a nearly unprecedented level of sincerity. His movies make money, his songs get radio play, and after the public dumps their money in Smith and his beneficiaries’ coffers, the work is largely forgotten.
Yet, he is not without merit. He is a convincing, charming actor, if a little too big a little too often. The comfort that his films offer has a value of its own, the kind of Jello-pudding comfort that leads one to pause on TNT mid Independence Day (if, for some reason, one still has cable), or play Hitch during a post-Thanksgiving Dinner when everyone is too turkey-stoned to give a shit.
His shrewdest move was marketing his family as a brand, though half of the credit is undoubtedly due to Pinkett-Smith. Jaden’s absurd antics and rich kid hobnobbing with millennial superstars has made him a household name. Willow’s meme-able "Hair" led to a so-so career, but a memorable public figure. Pinkett-Smith’s Red Table Talks act as The View for the Facebook generation. Will’s movies still do well, despite the critical response waning faster than a crescent moon, and his Instagram is a wellspring of suspiciously curated candid videos.
For his 50th birthday, Smith bungee jumped over the Grand Canyon and put it all on YouTube. It garnered millions of views. In it Smith seems happy, thrilled, warm and excited to be the center of attention. These unchallenging but undeniably enticing scenarios have always been where he puts forth his best work. He invites you along for the ride and cheerfully picks your pockets.
Trey Smith (far left), Jada Pinkett-Smith, Willow Smith and Will Smith at the "Aladdin" movie premiere - Rich Fury/Getty Images
And then there’s Aladdin, whose release last weekend seemed marked for failure and torturous death by meme-ing after the arrival of the first trailer, which featured a CGI’d Smith as Genie, a role previously lionized by the voicework of Robin Williams. Smith’s weird, uncanny valley-esque appearance was the subject of much online ridicule initially. However, upon release the movie garnered mixed if generally accepting reviews and is on track to make $ million dollars in its opening weekend. More than a few critics praised Smith as the movie’s standout performer and saving grace.
Once again we find Smith in his element, 30 years into a wildly successful career. The Genie is the Fresh Prince is Mike Lowry is Agent J. He’s here, he’s funny enough, he GETS IT, and if you listen closely, he’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear.