Will Smith. Not too many years ago, that was the biggest name in Hollywood. It sold nearly $6 billion in tickets worldwide, and domestically, it represented the only actor to have eight consecutive films that made more than $100 million at the box office. To add even more amazement to these achievements, Will Smith is black. There was nothing like this kind of black success before him, and we may never see its like again. We can now safely see Smith as a thing of the past, as it's hard to believe that his new movie, Focus, which opens this weekend and concerns a middle-aged hustler who has a thing with a young and pretty fellow hustler, will return him to glory.
Rumor has it that Smith picked up the role in Focus after it was first dropped by Ryan Gosling and then Ben Affleck. Also, Variety reported in 2013 that when Smith became officially attached to the project, Kristen Stewart (an actress made famous by the Twilight series), who was then slated to play the romantic interest of the lead, left it because "the age difference between the two would be too large a gap." (At the time, Stewart was 23 and Will Smith was 44.) The weird thing is that Stewart was happy to play the role when Ben Affleck, who is 42, was to be her partner in crime. Was this maybe a race thing? Did Stewart leave because she did not want to be seen kissing and fucking a black man in thousands of theaters across America? Either way, it only shows how far Smith has fallen. There was a time when no one saw any race in Smith. All they saw was the brilliance of his fame and the mountains of his money.
This is the background for Focus, the first film Smith has starred in since the 2013 box-office disaster After Earth. Indeed, Smith recently said in an interview with Esquire that After Earth was the "most painful failure" of his career. The pain was worsened, he further explained, by the fact that it involved his son Jaden Smith, who might be permanently damaged by the bad experience. Following After Earth, Smith stopped working, dove into himself, and tried to find that self that had generated an impressive, record-breaking string of summer hits. Where is this person now? What Smith clearly doesn't know is that the old self he is looking for did not disappear with After Earth but with Seven Pounds. This 2008 film is the apple that the snake in his garden of successes tricked him into eating.
We must remember that Will Smith is an empty human being. His fame is not built on talent but on the absence of it. He is not incredible; he is only likable. And the moment he attempts to do more than be just likable is the moment we run into serious trouble. That trouble began with Seven Pounds, which Gabriele Muccino directed. (The Italian also helmed one of Smith's biggest hits, The Pursuit of Happyness.) In Seven Pounds, Smith plays a heavyhearted, brooding soul who is working on an elaborate plan to donate his vital organs to morally upstanding people. Do you want his eyes when he dies? Are you desperate for his liver? If you are not a good person, you are not getting an organ from him! He commits suicide in a bathtub.
The film showed that Smith had lost something that kept his career in the stratosphere: his self-knowledge of his essential mediocrity. We looked all over the film for it, but Smith kept hiding it with this thing that looked vaguely like acting. Smith's new self-perception as an actor of substance—wrought by fame, success, and probably Scientology—led to his downfall. Maybe Focus will pull him out of the massive and still-smoldering wreckage.
And maybe there will be an After Earth 2.