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Why Does Will Smith Keep Making Sad Movies?

Collateral Beauty is the latest in a string of depressing films starring the Hollywood megastar.
Photo courtesy of WB

If you're headed to the movies this weekend and catching Star Wars: Rogue One isn't in the cards, you may be looking to see Collateral Beauty—that is, if you haven't read the reviews. "[It] seems like satire," the A.V. Club's Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote of the Will Smith–led weeper about a grieving ad man who's visited by personified representations of abstract concepts such as "Death" and "Time." In a deliciously scathing review, Alan Scherstuhl of the Village Voice suggests that people who hear about the film's mere existence will register amazement that it's "a real movie that actually played in American theaters"; Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times promises that Collateral Beauty is "just bad enough that you actually wish it was worse."


It stands to be seen whether it'll be the worst-reviewed film of the holiday season—early reviews of the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence space romance Passengers seem to be giving it a run for its money. Collateral Beauty, on the other hand, doesn't sound like it's much fun to watch. The concept of "fun" is especially important in this instance, because "fun" once defined Will Smith's career: from 1995's Bad Boys to 2005's Hitch, his run as a bankable, charismatic entertainer was nearly unbeatable. Even a brief stretch of obvious and self-serious Oscar bait—one relatively successful in execution (2001's Ali) and one not-as-much (the previous year's The Legend of Bagger Vance)—couldn't damage his reputation as a mass-market supernova of the multiplex.

For the last decade, however, Will Smith has largely been stuck in a depressive rut when it comes to the work he's gravitated toward—the type of emotionally manipulative fare that attempts to connect with audiences looking for a good cry even as it risks alienating them. In 2008, he starred in Seven Pounds, a modern-day fable about compassion that featured one of the most bizarre suicide scenes in recent memory. In last year's Concussion, he took on the portrayal of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the prevalence of CTE in NFL players. Even the more straightforward action fare that audiences have come to expect from Smith—I Am Legend, Hancock, After Earth, this year's critically maligned Suicide Squad—have been streaked with heavy themes ranging from alcoholism and depression to pure villainy and catastrophic plagues that lead to the literal end of the world.


How did the guy who coined one of the 1990s' most literal punchlines take such a joyless, decade-long detour? Arguably, this strange—and, as marked by the release of Collateral Beauty, still very open—chapter of Will Smith's career kicked off ten years ago today with the release of The Pursuit of Happyness. Also marking the the first film role for his son, Jaden, the film follows the real-life story of Christopher Gardner, a down-on-his-luck traveling salesman who, along with his son, struggles through homelessness and the dissolution of a marriage while attempting to grab the 80s American Dream's brass ring as a stockbroker.

A melancholic tale of hardship that aims for uplift, The Pursuit of Happyness isn't quite as dismal as other entries in the Sad Willie Style sub-genre. For one, the role of Gardner gives Smith a chance to employ his endless gift for charisma while working with material that is often and unremittingly bleak. The film, which was a box office smash, saw release three years before the popular ABC entrepreneur reality TV competition Shark Tank. Both pop-cultural entities tapped into the panic and devastation that followed the United States's financial crises of the 2000s. They cynically shifted the blame away from those who put the country in a mess to begin with and asked those who were affected by it, "If things are so bad, what are you doing to improve your own situation?"


Fittingly, The Pursuit of Happyness has also proved catnip for right-wing types. In 2009—just weeks after President Barack Obama was sworn into office—The National Review placed it at number seven on their list of the Best Conservative Movies, with the Center of Equal Opportunity chairperson Linda Chavez odiously singing its praises: "[Gardner and his son are] black, but there's no racial undertone or subtext… this film provides the antidote to Wall Street and other Hollywood diatribes depicting the world of finance as filled with nothing but greed." If that sounds a bit out-of-touch with reality, it's also not too far off from what Smith himself had to say about The Pursuit of Happyness.

In November of 2006, the film's promotional tour included a stop in Detroit, right after the state of Michigan had just voted against affirmative action. While Smith said during the promo stop that "As a black American, I am 100 percent in favor of affirmative action." He also characterized those who voted against the practice as "good people with good intentions," discussing the film's themes in a manner that aligned with those supposedly good-intentioned voters: "Thomas Jefferson… didn't say we deserved happiness, or that the government could provide it. It's the pursuit that matters, the opportunity to make that pursuit. That's what makes America unique."

Politics aside, it's clear that Smith viewed The Pursuit of Happyness as an attempt to connect with, speak to, and maybe even change the lives of "real America"—a simultaneously altruistic and quasi-messianic approach that was echoed in a Collider interview pegged to Seven Pounds: "I had this huge epiphany of how much more I want to be, how much more I want to do, and the idea of living in service to humanity versus living in service to the commerce of my movies… I want to be remembered as a man who cared about people and dedicated his life to making the world better."


On Ellen earlier this month, Smith said that his own father's passing inspired him to take on his role in Collateral Beauty—but it's not hard to imagine that the same self-imposed mandate he described circa Seven Pounds played a part as well. Even if those reasons help us conclude why he wanted to make the film, though, it's not unreasonable to expect a different line of questioning that will come from moviegoers coming out of Collateral Beauty this weekend: How did this get made?

As much as Will Smith is clearly drawn to projects that ostensibly attempt to address themes as simultaneously lofty and meaningless as "the human condition," those same projects ostensibly often get made only because of his involvement. Imagine Collateral Beauty made with Chris Hemsworth as the lead—or Michael B. Jordan, or Michael Shannon, or any other well-to-do actor who nonetheless is worth less than $250 million. It wouldn't happen.

And that's because Will Smith is part of a dying breed of entertainer, one who can get anything made on the strength of their name alone—and it's that clout that possibly feeds into his own delusion that movies like these are helping people other than himself. "I don't need the box office to be huge on this film," he said during a Facebook Live interview last week, and in the commercial soul-searching that's defined this portion of his career, that statement might be the closest he's come to reaching a universal truth.

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