Saturday, June 1, 2013
Will Smith has spent the better part of the past decade more interested in whether his son has a career than whether he has one.
And because he is such a Hollywood heavyweight with so much muscle -- both financial, and the more abstract power of his reputation -- it's hard to say whether Jaden Smith is "happening" organically, or merely through the force of Will Smith's ... well, Will Smith's will.
Put more simply: Is Jaden Smith really a star, or is Will Smith just succeeding in telling us he's a star?
What got me thinking about this was a billboard I saw recently for After Earth, which opens today, in which neither the senior Smith's name nor his face appears. It's kind of like the one you're seeing in this picture here, except it was horizontal rather than vertical, and there was no companion billboard feature only Will's name and face. (You'd be wise to ask, however, which is the elder and which is the younger. Starting with the Seven Pounds billboard a few years back, I swear they are doing some kind of reverse aging thing on Will Smith.)
Jaden Smith's solo billboard is designed to make us think that Jaden himself can open a picture, even without his daddy. But is that real, or is it just hype?
It'd help to take a little look at his career thus far. He's only 14 (for about another month), so this should be pretty quick.
Jaden of course debuted alongside his dad in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, which I actually thought was great. I don't have a strong memory of Jaden's performance in the film, but I suspect he seemed pretty natural -- a chip off the old block, as they say. It goes without saying that Jaden would not have appeared in this film without Will ... yet I just said it anyway.
His next feature was two years later in 2008, the awful remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. And already, at not yet 10 years old, Jaden blows my theory out of the water. IMDB does not show Will Smith's name anywhere on this movie. Surely he worked his magic behind the scenes, but he wasn't so involved with the movie that he got a producer credit or anything.
Not the case for Jaden's next movie, which came out at another (parentally responsible) two-year interval: The Karate Kid in 2010. This movie probably makes the best case for Jaden being a true breakout star able to exist on his own merits, but I'll have to take other people's word for it because I still haven't seen it. And daddy definitely helped here: Both Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are credited as producers.
That brings us to After Earth, which reteams the buddy comedy duo from The Pursuit of Happyness. (That's a joke.)
Jaden got such an early start that it only feels like he's been around forever. At not even 15, Jaden probably isn't feeling desperate to get out of his father's shadow just yet. Though if I were him, I'd probably think twice about co-starring with his father again, at least not until he's in his 20s and the elder Smith is trying to make his first comeback. Time for this baby bird to spread his wings and fly.
Then and only then will we decide if this baby bird can carry his own billboard, let alone his own movie.
Of course, the elephant in the room about After Earth has nothing to do with either of the Smiths. The elephant is that After Earth is M. Night Shyamalan's latest attempt to reclaim the creative glory that has eluded him for something like six movies now. I'd say it was his last chance, but that's what I said when he made The Last Airbender, which ended up being one of his biggest flops. Yet here he is again, even though studios have long since stopped using his name to help market his movies.
So maybe Jaden catches a break here. If his movie stinks, maybe it won't be any kind of commentary on his star power after all.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Men in Black 3 is poised to do pretty well. A bankable star (Will Smith). A reliable veteran (Tommy Lee Jones). A new addition who has hip indie cred (Josh Brolin). A franchise that retains its sense of good will despite a second installment that almost no one liked.
And a plum release date just before Memorial Day, the ceremonial start to summer.
However, it's this last part that probably chaps Will Smith's hide.
During his career Smith has been identified with the Fourth of July, an association he has worked hard to cultivate. In fact, he went so far as to anoint himself Mr. Fourth of July back in the late 1990s.
Can being shifted to Memorial Day seem like anything but a demotion to him?
Not because Memorial Day is intrinsically a worse time of the year for a movie to come out. In fact, I'd argue it's better. There have already been a couple major releases, so you're not the first big movie of the season. In fact, you're catching audiences right when their appetites are truly whetted for summer movies in all their shapes and forms. You could argue that by July, the summer movie season is already winding down.
No, it's because Smith calls himself Mr. Fourth of July. He doesn't call himself Mr. Memorial Day. And this earlier release means he can't haul out his old Independence Day branding, which started with Independence Day.
On July 3, 1996, Independence Day hit theaters and was a huge hit. A year later, on July 2, 1997, Men in Black followed and did almost as well at the box office, with greater appreciation from critics to boot.
Thus -- at least in Smith's mind -- a legend was born.
Even though Wild Wild West (released June 30, 1999) was a colossal failure, that didn't stop July 4th from belonging to Smith. His next summer blockbuster, Men in Black II, hit theaters on July 3, 2002.
It was only at this point that Smith's blockbusters stopped being synonymous with summer's midpoint three-day weekend. Bad Boys II was released July 18, 2003, and I, Robot was release July 16, 2004. That seems a bit punitive, as late July is really starting to be the back end of the summer movie season. (Just don't tell that to Christopher Nolan.) But Smith returned to his favored release date in 2008 with Hancock, which came out on July 2nd.
But then a funny thing happened to Will Smith: He disappeared.
He's such a big star that you may not have even noticed it, but did you realize that Smith hasn't made a movie since Seven Pounds in December of 2008? It really opened my eyes yesterday on NPR when I heard a reporter mention that Smith hadn't starred in a movie "since George Bush was still in office."
It's not like the Smith family brand went into complete hibernation, though. Will's son Jaden starred in The Karate Kid a couple summers ago. But daddy was nowhere to be seen.
Well, Smith ends his self-imposed exile today, when the apparently troubled third installment in the Men in Black series (they started shooting before the script was finished) invades the multiplexes. And we'll be seeing more of him in the next four years than we have in the last four, as IMDB lists five movies currently in his pipeline, though only a couple of them have progressed past the "rumored" phase. The one that's currently filming is After Earth, with Winter's Tale in pre-production. Then a bevy of seemingly ill-advised sequels: I, Robot 2, Hancock 2 and Bad Boys 3.
I for one am happy to see him back. Even though I made some snide remarks earlier that indicated I think Smith has a big ego, I actually think he has the right kind of big ego. (As it turns out, I Am Legend was not actually a biopic.) When he's boastful or proud, he's joyfully so, and it never comes off wrong.
Besides, he's a big, charismatic star who has made slightly more good choices than bad ones. That's a gamble I'm willing to take.
(Also, I really want to watch 90 minutes of Josh Brolin impersonating Tommy Lee Jones.)
And so what if it's "only" coming out on Memorial Day weekend (and not even the Wednesday before). At 43, Smith is still young enough to re-brand himself.
So what is coming out on Fourth of July weekend this year? That honor goes to The Amazing Spider-Man, starring the new Mr. Fourth of July ... Andrew Garfield.
Yeah, I'm betting I'll find Men in Black 3 more amazing.