THE POPCORN REEL FEATURE STORY: WILL SMITH


Will Smith as John Hancock in Peter Berg's "Hancock", opening in the U.S. and Canada on July 2.  The film is distributed in North America by Sony Pictures.  (Photo: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures)

Will Smith's Summer Badness

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

June 17, 2008

"Summer summer summer time!"

Remember that refrain from the song of several years ago?  If you do you will remember it is from Will Smith's song "Summertime", which was something of an anthem not so long ago.  On the big screen the summer time was an anthem for Will Smith himself, with the sunnier months being synonymous with a Will Smith box office hit movie.  "Independence Day", "Wild Wild West", "Men In Black II", "Bad Boys II", and "I, Robot" all filled summer movie marquees to great success, each making well over $100 million in the U.S. and Canada alone, but the last two years have seen the inevitable future box-office king of the world appear in films released in December, with 2006's "The Pursuit Of Happyness" and last year's "I Am Legend", these two films each making over $200 million in North America.  Mr. Smith is currently filming "Seven Pounds", about a man who affects the lives of seven strangers, themed in a similar way to "21 Grams", which reunites him with "Pursuit" director Gabriele Mucchino.  "Seven Pounds" will make it a third consecutive December in the U.S. and Canada in which a Will Smith film will open.

Before then, in July, summer time on the big screen will be Will Smith's once again for the first time since 2004 with "Hancock", an action/comedy-drama directed by Peter Berg, who last helmed "The Kingdom", which opened last September in the U.S. and Canada.  Mr. Berg appeared in front of the camera last November for "Lions For Lambs" and in 2004 for "Collateral", two Tom Cruise vehicles.  "Hancock" opens in North America on July 2 and stars Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron.  Mr. Smith who plays the title role, also produced the new film.

If Tom Hanks is the nicest guy in Hollywood then Will Smith is the most likable.  Both are everymen and two of America's top four box office draws globally, with Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts rounding out the quartet of Americans, although Mr. Cruise remains at the summit when it comes to box office bacon.  Mr. Cruise has flagged a little with American audiences over the last three years for a variety of reasons while he remains a factor in international box office power. Meanwhile his good friend Mr. Smith has for quite a while now -- at least since Eddie Murphy in the eighties and early nineties -- been the only black actor in the world who consistently brings audiences to movie theaters globally with his star turns.  Among many Hollywood executives there is a notion, supported by box office returns themselves in a number of instances, that black actors' films tend to do more poorly outside the United States.  Whether the answers behing this commonly-held Tinseltown axiom is rooted in European and other international audiences' ingredients of racism or subconscious racist attitudes, or because the films in which many black actors star lack a certain je ne sais quoi, the charismatic Will Smith has put paid to the crude have-black-won't-travel mentality with solid performances and an undeniable appeal.  Because Mr. Smith has such a likable persona both on and off screen, and a music career that has taken him into the stratosphere ever since getting off the ground, he has, perhaps, a little extra "something something", as the saying goes.

This extra something may also explain why Mr. Smith, who will be 40 in September, is taking more risks on the big screen.  Some of his critics say that he hadn't taken any risks on the big screen since his astonishing lead role debut in "Six Degrees Of Separation" in 1993, but the facts suggest otherwise.  Mr. Smith has twice played characters that have been far from likable in some cases or heavily criticized in a few quarters, playing a golfing caddy to Matt Damon, along with Miss Theron as Mr. Damon's onscreen wife in Robert Redford's "Legend Of Bagger Vance", a flop both critically and commercially in 2000, and the following year playing Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's "Ali", where his performance won him a best actor Oscar nomination.  In "Bagger Vance" the historical accuracies of Mr. Smith's character, which Spike Lee once called the "myth of the super negro" were questioned -- the idea that a black man in the American South during the 1930's, the period when the film was principally set, would be able to freely caddy and be a force in any white couples' lives while lynching and other violence against blacks was rampant across the region was viewed as a highly fanciful notion at best.  In "Ali" some critics spoke of Mr. Smith's aping of the boxing legend whom at one point for several years across the globe had the most recognizable face on the planet. 
 
The new or inherent risks for Mr. Smith come with playing less uplifting, if not less likable characters.  His role as Chris Gardner, a former homeless single father in San Francisco turned millionaire in "The Pursuit Of Happyness" also won him a lead actor Oscar nomination and the true story of Mr. Gardner was ultimately a triumph, even as some thought the film version was too polished for Hollywood.  In "I Am Legend", Mr. Smith got serious as the last man on the planet in a grim, solitary post-apocalyptic nightmare.  "Hancock" brings new risks for the actor, whom in trailers for the new film is depicted as a couldn't-care-less-guy who just happens to know how to fly and be more of a nuisance samaritan than a savior.  Like Mr. Smith's character in "The Pursuit Of Happyness" Hancock is homeless.  He skulks around in Los Angeles, accompanied primarily by a desperate man's best friend: alcohol, and without a purpose in the world it seems, until an event sparks something within him.
 
In a recent interview with Sony Pictures, the Hollywood film studio releasing "Hancock" in the United States and Canada, Mr. Smith defended the unlikely hero character.  The superhero John Hancock, he said, is "just a regular dude -- he has regular problems.  He don't wanna wear no damn suit, you know.  It's not comfortable.  He wants to wear shorts with some flip flops.  The regular guy aspect of it is a part of what I think is most exciting to people who see this film."  The film, the actor said, reveals what lies beneath Hancock's shining armor and non-committal demeanor.  In July -- a month in an overall summer where film superheroes will be abundant -- with "The Dark Knight" opening a little more than two weeks after "Hancock", it may be tempting for Mr. Smith to slightly appropriate and paraphrase the line from Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters" when speaking to audiences this summer in "Hancock": "I am the darker knight." 

Mr. Smith, who commands between $25 and $35 million per film and produces films under his Overbrook company with producing partner James Lassiter,  mentioned in his Sony interview that Hancock is a new brand of superhero, adding that there hasn't been an original or at least new type of superhero in 40 years.  He cited the old and familiar hero brands of Spider-Man, Iron Man (the film of which has been a mega hit so far) and Batman (which is Mr. Smith's main box-office competition for July.)  One wonders whether Hancock as a superhero will have the kind of endurance that Superman and Batman have had, but one thing can definitely be said: John Hancock is the most unappealing character that Mr. Smith has played for some time.  The Philadelphia native says that despite Hancock's flaws and negativities the character is not beyond redemption.  "He's a good guy but he kind of does things that get construed as bad.  He drinks too much.  He's an alcoholic superhero.  So that sort of builds a problem.  He can fly but he's flying drunk.  So he kind of bangs into buildings," Mr. Smith said, wearing a typical Will Smith smile and a bright, fuchsia-colored sweater in connection with "Seven Pounds", which began filming in Los Angeles in March.  "People don't like him a lot but he still is impelled every day to go out and save people," Mr. Smith added.

Off screen, Will Smith is trying to save his marriage from ending in divorce -- a potential split he publicly wanted no part of last month when his wife of ten years, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, who reportedly filed for divorce recently.  In turn, the megastar film actor and rapper said that "divorce was not an option," leading one to believe that his statement could also apply even in situations where divorce might be warranted.  Mr. Smith faced flak for his statement in some quarters of the entertainment television punditry, a few of whom declared that the actor was being coercive in his comment.  Mr. Smith's relationship with the mainstream press overall has generally been good, except in one instance where an overseas publication had misquoted him last year, twisting his words to have him say that Adolf Hitler was a great man.  Mr. Smith immediately condemned the publication for its falsehood, quickly correcting the record by clearing up the misquote, while winning a lawsuit and getting the publication to apologize.  Through it all, even with the potential divorce matter that Mr. Smith wants to spend more time with his wife trying to work to avoid, the actor has been Teflon.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith have two kids, whom made their movie debuts in back-to-back Smith films "The Pursuit Of Happyness" (Jaden) and "I Am Legend" (Willow).  Mr. Smith has a third child, Trey, from a previous marriage.

The public challenges raised by the personal turmoil for Mr. Smith may be the greatest that he has faced in his life and career.  This summer there is a good chance that tabloid lovers will be at the local movie multiplex asking one very interesting question:

"What Would Hancock Do?"

"Hancock" opens in the United States and Canada on July 2, with openings around the world coming in early and mid-July, and beyond.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.

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