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Will Smith Is Still America’s Favorite Movie Star

But only on Instagram.

Will Smith on Instagram.
Will Smith on Instagram.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Will Smith/Instagram.

On Tuesday, actor, rapper, and star-spawner Will Smith accomplished something few other men turning 50 this year could: He created a viral Instagram post. Parodying the music video for his son Jaden’s hit single “Icon,” Smith donned junior’s bleached ’do and faded denim jacket as well as a gold chain even more uncomfortable than the elaborate neck gear Jaden sports in the video. But a cut reveals that the rest of Smith’s outfit is straight out of the Dad Kit: gym shorts, tube socks, fuzzy slippers. As Jaden sings, “I am just an icon living,” his dad—until recently the biggest movie star in the world—fumblingly puts back in his mouth the dentures that had fallen into his hands.

The brief video was meant as a funny, self-deprecating congrats to Jaden for reaching 100 million streams on Spotify, but it made an even stronger, if unrelated, point: The Will Smith you miss lives on in Instagram. That Will Smith certainly hasn’t been spotted at the movies in the last decade, which has seen the A-lister mostly jumping between critically pilloried action flicks (Bright, Suicide Squad, After Earth) and failed Oscar bait (Collateral Beauty, Concussion, Seven Pounds). But the denture gag alone highlighted Smith’s best qualities as a performer: that lanky physical grace, those broad comic instincts, that irrepressible goofiness and charisma, born of a need to entertain and impress. Why in the world are we only seeing those priceless gifts online?

Smith also created a (bare, uninteresting) YouTube channel last December, but his Instagram account is his real showcase. (He’s also on Facebook, but unlike his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, he has declined to sign up for Twitter. Good idea.) Plenty of celebrities use social media to augment their stardom, but Smith’s Instagram feels singular in that it’s the only place, other than old DVDs, to experience the qualities that made this megastar a megastar.

Perhaps Smith’s Instagram is so compelling because his photos and videos feel like behind-the-scenes images from a sitcom where the movie star is rewriting TV dad–dom. Insta-Will is a superstar who goes on Ellen and takes pictures at Comic Con Experience with fans dressed like his characters, but he’s also bracingly normal. He makes deliriously corny jokes. He poses with his family in ugly Christmas sweaters. He says awkward things about his children. He doles out advice based on “this Rumi quote.” He posts pictures of his food while complaining about everyone else posting pictures of their food. BuzzFeed writer Bim Adenwunmi memorably tweeted that Smith’s destiny is “to be an internet-uncle phil for millennials,” but I don’t think that’s quite right—Uncle Phil was a kindly if frustrated disciplinarian, and the A-lister doesn’t evince an ounce of hardness in his posts. He’s the affable, ultrawealthy, happily domestic sitcom dad who I can’t believe we’re not seeing on TV right now, not least because Smith looks like he’s having a blast, which I can’t say for his movies.

So why aren’t we? Smith certainly bears responsibility for his script choices. Other than voice-over roles, he’s currently attached to four action-franchise sequels and one stand-alone action film by director Ang Lee. Perhaps he’s aiming for box-office performance above all else, especially in this time of movie-stardom crisis; perhaps he just wants to keep making unimaginable gobs of money. It’s still notable that Smith, a black actor, is an internationally bankable action star. And it certainly isn’t as if Hollywood is in the business of making intelligent dramas for grown-ups anymore. Even Denzel Washington is alternating his August Wilson projects with schlock like 2 Guns and The Equalizer.

But it also feels like Hollywood’s ageism toward male stars stamps an expiration date on goofiness. The current batch of goofy leading men—Chris Hemsworth, Channing Tatum, Andy Samberg—are under 40. The ’90s goofballs who came up with Smith—Mike Myers, Brendan Fraser, Jim Carrey—have fallen off the cultural map. It’s possible that even Smith—his box-office-juggernaut status tempered by his salt-and-pepper goatee—is just going where the work is.

Stardom demands depth to sustain itself. Smith’s early hits, like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Men in Black, launched him into the stratosphere because he proved that he was able to set aside the goofiness when it counted to, uh, save humanity from aliens armed with lasers. (The inability to do so sunk Myers and Fraser’s careers—and explains why Carrey attempted to shift to drama in the late ’90s.) Smith has been playing against type for so long that we’d almost forgotten where his wattage comes from. But the star clearly hasn’t. I don’t know if Smith is interested in returning to comedy, where he thrived for decades, but he’s using social media to cannily exhibit the showmanship muscles he clearly enjoys flexing. And that makes his Instagram an audition for a show that doesn’t exist.

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Inkoo Kang

Inkoo Kang writes about technology and culture for Slate.