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Toward a Unified Theory of Will Smith

The Fresh Prince, who returns this week in Disney’s live-action ‘Aladdin’ reboot, has always been capable of greatness. He just needs a sparring partner to bring out that hunger.

A collage of different Will Smith characters Ringer illustration

My fervent wish for Will Smith, in 2019 as in 1995, is that he finds another on-screen partner as worthy of his talents—or, more importantly, as worthy of his $7.6 billion in global box office receipts—as Uncle Phil. In the early ’90s, Smith was known primarily as the Fresh Prince, the PG-rated pride of Philadelphia, a cheeseball rapper (“Parents Just Don’t Understand” is timeless) and budding sitcom titan. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (cocreated by Andy Borowitz!) ran on NBC from 1990 to 1996, when its young, titular hero got way too movie-star famous. The show, too, could get a little cheeseball. But if you lived it in real time, I bet you can still awkwardly rap the entire theme song, and I bet you’d still theatrically bawl through Smith’s “How come he don’t want me, man?” speech.

The premise of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as any one of millions of 40-something white people would be delighted to rap at you at any time, is that a teenaged Will moves from hardscrabble West Philadelphia to Bel Air to be raised by his posh aunt and uncle. High jinks ensue. (Yo, homes, smell ya later!) The late, great James Avery, as Uncle Phil, was a cuddly-grouchy sitcom dad nonpareil, and a perfect foil for Smith’s nuclear charisma. Late in Season 4, in a 1994 episode called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” Will very briefly reunites with his absentee biological father, who immediately abandons him again. Will tearfully rages to Uncle Phil, who bear-hugs him amid audible sobs emanating from backstage, or the studio audience, or you, or all three.

In 1995, Smith would costar alongside Martin Lawrence in the buddy-cop blockbuster Bad Boys; in 1997, he’d costar alongside Tommy Lee Jones in the (alien-themed) buddy-cop blockbuster Men in Black. The birth of two major multiplex franchises, with 1996’s gargantuan (and alien-themed) Independence Day mashed in between. Soon to come: lucrative sequels, Oscar nominations, and countless superstar vehicles from the sublime (2007’s apocalypse aria I Am Legend) to the ridiculous (Netflix’s 2017 supernatural buddy-cop farce Bright). He was, and remains, one of the biggest movie stars of his generation; on Friday, he stars as the Genie in a live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin, which might make a billion dollars, or might suck, or both. Definitely they should’ve changed this song’s key.

You know him, you love him, and you’re still rooting for him, nearly 30 years on. Smith transcended The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air almost immediately. But all those buddy-cop blockbusters notwithstanding, he’s never kept better company than Uncle Phil. “James Avery was relentlessly on me to elevate,” Smith recalled in a 2018 Rap Radar interview, recalling the show’s best scene, and in fact the single best scene he’s ever done, in anything, with anybody. He still remembers Avery’s advice: “‘Relax. Relax. It’s already in there. You know what it is.’ He’s like, ‘Look at me. Use me. Don’t act around me. Act with me.’ And he hugs me at the end, and while he’s hugging me, he whispers in my ear, he says, ‘That’s fuckin’ acting right there.’”

“I was using him,” Smith concluded. “I wanted him to want me. I wanted him to approve of me.” Few actors alive have a more fearsome filmography than the Fresh Prince who was promised, have reveled in greater fame or fortune, have earned more delighted approval from more people. Aladdin can’t ruin that legacy even if it sucks, or for the matter substantially add to that legacy even if it rules. But only in flashes, across his 20-plus years of nearly unprecedented box office success, do you get the sense that you’re watching Will Smith yearn for something he doesn’t yet have. What do you get the veteran superstar who has everything? Maybe the drive that comes with wanting something again. His megawatt charm is infinite. His hunger is another matter entirely.

What Bad Boys and Independence Day and Men in Black established—and what further endeavors, from the 1998 paranoid thriller Enemy of the State to even 1999’s vibrantly woeful flop Wild Wild West, quickly confirmed—is that Will Smith’s face is the perfect vehicle to convey the sentiment What the hell is that thing? Also: Oh, hell no. Also: I got this. Or, ideally, all three. There he is, a full-blown movie star, sprinting down the street, ideally with his shirt open, while brandishing some luxe firearm either domestic or intergalactic, kicking ass and cracking jokes with whoever’s driving the car. He was and perhaps remains our nation’s—our planet’s—greatest ambassador. What an honor it would be, as a genocidal space alien, to let him flatten you with one punch and then yell, “Welcome to Earth!”

Such was his action-hero magnetism that for a solid half-decade or so he didn’t have any time to make “normal” movies; one might forget that his first starring role was actually in the extra-verbose 1993 Broadway adaptation Six Degrees of Separation, in which he plays a con man who dazzles Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and Ian McKellen so thoroughly it can’t help but feel a little meta. He rose so high so fast that he transcended conventional notions of prestige as well as the need to chase it.

Michael Mann’s 2001 epic Ali, with Smith flexing his muscles both external and internal in the bombastic title role, flirted with the three-hour barrier in its naked desire to serve as its young star’s award-seizing coronation. “I’m only 22 years old, I ain’t got a mark on my face, I must be the greatest,” Muhammad Ali bellowed, and you believed him even as your attention wandered. (By that point Smith was in his 30s, but still hadn’t lost his radiant teenage glow.)

As reverent pantomime, from the jutting jaw to the sonic-boom baritone to the “I ain’t scared of ya!” weigh-in tirades to the toupee-grabbing repartee with Jon Voight’s Howard Cosell, Smith’s performance got the job done. “You got a pretty face for a lady’s face,” Ali purred to a young lady who happened to be played by Smith’s real-life second wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. “But you ever seen anything as pretty as me?” No. The movie, too bloated and exhausted by the time it got to the Rumble in the Jungle to compete with the transcendent 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, lost a ton of money; Smith lost the Best Actor Oscar to Denzel Washington in Training Day. He is still on the hunt for his very own Training Day even as we speak.

He had options, and he exploited them. Men in Black II in 2002, Bad Boys II in 2003. He found ways to maintain that action-hero aura but get ever-so-slightly edgier: “Oh, hell no,” he grimly remarked, confronted with an AI uprising in 2004’s pleasantly formulaic I, Robot. Smith’s peak, as a steely everyman sprinting either toward or away from grave danger, is 2007’s I Am Legend. The shaky, dimly lit claustrophobia of this scene has stayed with me, the rare instance when he let his charisma fully dissolve into actual terror.

Of course, in I Am Legend, he mostly bantered with a dog. Smith’s biggest movies tend to play out as buddy-cop romps no matter their actual genre; from DJ Jazzy Jeff and Uncle Phil forward, his true gift is banter, is adversarial horseplay, is witty repartee so broad Michael Bay could film it (or Andy Borowitz could cocreate it). Hitch, from 2005, is somehow his only pure rom-com, in which he accidentally roundhouse-kicks Eva Mendes off a Jet Ski and slaps Kevin James for dancing poorly. The tone is tricky, especially in retrospect: Smith plays a pick-up-artist guru whose objective is to assist schlubby dudes in their hapless attempts at “getting women out of their own head.” But Aziz Ansari loves it (also remarkable in retrospect), and so, perhaps, do you. It’s another career path largely not taken: Smith’s still so good at battling mutants and androids and whatnot that he’s rarely got time for battles of the sexes, either.

My favorite Will Smith movie is the 2006 melodrama The Pursuit of Happyness, if only for how deftly he rises above all the melodrama. The true story of stockbroker and latter-day motivational speaker Chris Gardner’s struggles with homelessness as a single parent in early-’80s San Francisco, the movie is a tearjerker minefield from the onset, a bootstraps fable and goopy Hallmark card aiming for “How come he don’t want me, man” gravitas with a bazooka. Smith has sad eyes and a tentatively heroic mustache; his achingly cute young son is played by his actual young son, Jaden, who’d go on to fare better as a confounding rapper and even more confounding Twitter philosopher. The rock-bottom scene here, in which Chris silently breaks down while cradling his son as they’re forced to sleep in a public-transportation bathroom, is a crusher: Smith puts a ton of effort into underplaying it, the twee-maudlin soundtrack and pervasive goopiness be damned.

Somehow I spent years pulling up the movie’s climactic scene on YouTube before I actually watched Happyness in full; it has, indeed, Uncle Phil–caliber depths of feeling, but only on Smith’s side. The look in his eyes, the volcanic amounts of joy and relief, is a revelation even after 15 years of revelatory work: That’s fucking acting right there. (Smith got his second Academy Award nomination for the role, losing to Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.) But the pervasive condescension oozing off everyone else in the room—“Would you like that, Chris?”—is hard to deal with. (The Legend of Bagger Vance, Smith’s wobbly 2000 foray into Southern mythmaking—and golf—dealt with similar racially charged tropes.) Few movie stars can seem so winsome, so human, so casually. But he’d run out of worthy sparring partners. Nobody else was likable enough. The only move then, unfortunately, was to make himself a little less likable.

Late-period Will Smith is defined largely by its grouchiness—his grouchiness. In 2008’s Hancock he played an alcoholic and misanthropic superhero who couldn’t help but vibe winningly with Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron anyway; he tried and failed, in essence, to be unlikable, which is probably why the movie succeeded.

That year he also reunited with Happyness director Gabriele Muccino for the way grouchier and goopier Seven Pounds, a soap-opera farce that The New York Times’ A.O. Scott very memorably described as “the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made.” It, too, made a ton of money. Even 2013’s sci-fi brooder After Earth, a cheerless turkey (and unsuccessful Jaden Smith vehicle) from M. Night Shyamalan’s wilderness years, fared all right commercially despite being critically savaged. Audiences can’t quit this guy, even when he’s trying to quit himself.

Smith is less omnipresent as an actor now; in modern-day Hollywood it’s mostly about the shadow he casts, the bygone career highs no spry young matinee hopeful can hope to reach. To hit blockbuster status now, get yourself a superhero gig—even one as grim and incoherent as 2016’s very successful and monumentally lousy D.C. flick Suicide Squad, in which the Fresh Prince plays “the most wanted hit man in the world” and is compelled to sternly deliver dialogue like “So let me guess, we’re going to the swirling ring of trash in the sky” and “So that’s it? We some kind of Suicide Squad?” The “Bohemian Rhapsody” version of the trailer is, like, 50 times better than the actual movie, which Smith scowls through like an audience surrogate.

Netflix’s Bright is like Bird Box without the memes, and the hell with it. The best evidence of Smith’s range, savvy, and undimmed ambition in the past five years or so is 2015’s Concussion, in which he renders another real person—Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian American physician whose studies of brain injuries among football players roiled the NFL—as a gentle eccentric you’re drawn to even at his stiffest. “God did not intend for us to play football” is not a line most Americans will tolerate most Americans delivering, if they’ll tolerate it at all. Smith has devoted his career to being so overwhelmingly likable for so long that you’re forced to listen.

Aladdin looks terrible. Smith has, of course, beaten the odds before—dozens of times, really. But the Genie in the original Aladdin is very arguably Robin Williams’s finest role, full stop, and from what little footage we’ve gotten so far, Smith’s take on the character feels like his attempt to reconcile his movie career with his also lucrative but much cornier rap career. He is very, very blue. He is fortunate the internet did not demand a full-scale post-trailer reimagining, à la Sonic the Hedgehog.

Is this project too ambitious for a 50-year-old Will Smith, or not ambitious in the slightest? Do we want him nakedly chasing Oscars or retreating to the relative safety of the imminent Bad Boys for Life? The answer, of course, is he’ll do both. He’ll be everything to everyone, at a slower pace relative to his own supernova career, but still much faster relative to every nascent star as young and green now as Smith was back when Uncle Phil was his guiding light. He may not shock you with his renewed greatness in Aladdin, but he doubtless will again sometime, in some great movie you don’t see coming. It’s already in there. You know what it is.