In 2008, Seven Pounds, a baffling drama about redemption and involving jellyfish was released, and the reviews were hardly kind. “An unintentionally ludicrous drama of repentance as an extreme sport” featuring “a humorless, impenetrable” Will Smith is how Entertainment Weekly described it. Said theNew York Times’ A.O. Scott: “Who does [Smith] think he is? Jesus! … Lately he has taken so eagerly to roles predicated on heroism and world-saving self-sacrifice — see I Am Legend and Hancock — that you may wonder if he has a messiah clause in his contract.” On the other hand: “Smith … is looking to be more than a saint, a god, or some good Samaritan. Hilariously, the man wants the impossible: He wants to be Oprah,” burned Wesley Morris, then at the Boston Globe.
I emphasize these assailing critiques of Seven Pounds because it’s the movie that marked a turning point in Big Willie’s until-then impressive career and is particularly telling in the wake of the star’s latest film, Collateral Beauty. The former found critics and audiences wondering, perhaps for the first time, if Smith was taking himself a bit too seriously, “overreaching” in his ambitions and landing in the territory of embarrassing self parody. The new movie, in which he plays Howard, a grieving parent of a deceased child, seems to confirm that, indeed, he still he is.* Savage reviews have deemed it “misguided” and unintentionally terrible, while the film opened this past weekend to a mere $7 million.
In Collateral Beauty, Kate Winslet, Edward Norton, and Michael Peña play Howard’s friends and business partners who gaslight him into believing that he’s speaking to the physical embodiments of Love, Time, and Death, to whom he’s taken up writing angry letters in the wake of his daughter’s death. They do this by hiring three actors, played by Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, and Jacob Latimore. These actors don’t just help Howard confront his deep depression and sadness but also help Winslet, Norton, and Peña’s characters confront their own individual problems with these “important” life issues. From beginning to end, Collateral Beauty is every bit as terrible as the reviews have made it out to be and every bit as emotionally manipulative as Howard’s friends’ actions. (Just wait until the final “twist” at the end, which begs—nay, commands—that you cry and feel even sorrier for Howard than you’re already supposed to.) The title of the film, which is neither a commonly used phrase nor one with a clearly defined meaning, is spoken, by my count, a total of six (!) times, five of those within a two-minute span.
The biggest problem with Collateral Beauty, of course, is not its bizarre premise but its inherent self-seriousness and clumsy execution, and this is a problem that has found its way into nearly every Smith vehicle since he submerged himself in a bathtub full of ice water and martyred himself with jellyfish.After Birth—er, After Earth—saw him hitch his wagon to a past-his-prime M. Night Shyamalan in an act of unabashed nepotism that was about as profound as it was exciting. (No one goes to a Will Smith movie to see him, spaceship-bound, give stern, somber directions for two hours.) Focus wanted to be a clever update of Out of Sight–meets–Ocean’s Eleven, but was just a shallow jaunt in which his love interest was Margot Robbie, 22 years his junior. Concussion was supposed to be a hard-hitting indictment of the NFL’s attempts to discredit the science behind chronic traumatic encephalopathy’s affects on its players, and it wasn’t. (His Nigerian accent also left much to be desired.) Smith was only a small part of the glorious mess that was Suicide Squad earlier this year, but that movie, too, thought it was way cooler and more significant than any critics, much less fans, felt. (And if you’ve never even heard of Winter’s Tale, a small fantasy indie from 2014 in which Smith plays—wait for it—Lucifer, just know that that’s for the best.)
Each of these films has called into question Smith’s self-awareness, and likewise, his reputation as a guaranteed box office draw has all but faded. With the exception of franchise extensions like Men in Black 3 and Suicide Squad, Smith is no longer consistently pulling I Am Legend ($256 million) orPursuit of Happyness ($163 million) numbers. There was a time, perhaps, when you might have been able to point to any number of reasons for a Will Smith movie to have underperformed, like smaller budgets (Legend of Bagger Vance, $30 million) or terrible reviews, as Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro insists is the case with Collateral Beauty. But it seems more accurate to say that the main takeaway from its poor turnout is that Smith fatigue has officially set in. Last year’s Concussion opened around the same time and was also up against a new Star Wars movie, and it made $14 million opening weekend, twice as much as this year’s schlockfest. Smith received some of the worst reviews of his career for Wild Wild West, and it still made $113 million.
Even in these poorly reviewed movies, Smith is still usually praised for his charisma and screen presence. In his Boston Globe review of Seven Pounds, Morris called him “engaging, anyway,” while Manohla Dargis said of his performance in Concussion that “he mounts a quietly effective charm offensive” as Dr. Bennet Omalu. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Collateral Beauty review that is able to look past all the crap and at least find a bright spot in his performance: “It’s the kind of serious performance you sometimes see from Adam Sandler or Robin Williams when they’ve mistaken ‘seriousness’ for giving us nothing.” He “plays the act of grieving like a child miming the trajectory of a garden snail in a school play” and is “pink-eyed, mopey and divorced from his usual charismatic stride.”
While he’s had success in the past with straight-forwardly dramatic turns—namely, The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali, both of which earned Smith Oscar nods—it seems pretty clear that he’s veered too far afield in his pursuit of “serious” critical approval. It would serve Smith well to emulate his friend and brother in Scientology Tom Cruise, who in recent years has stuck to giving his fans the persona they want most from him: action hero. In doing so, he allows audiences to forget, for a couple of hours, at least, that he’s the same Cruise who also lives within the weird, disturbing world of Scientology, because he’s not trying to be so grim and thought-provoking all of the time. A return to the fun glory days of Smith the world saver, or even Smith the romantic—with the right material, of course—could go a long way to bringing good will back to Big Will.
Correction, Dec. 20, 2016: This post originally misidentified Will Smith’s character in Collateral Beauty as Ben. The character’s name is Howard.