Tim Grierson on Will Smith, the Last Movie Star

Will Smith in Men in Black 3

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In film, there are very few sure things. But for a good long time, Will Smith was one of them. Over the span of 12 years, Smith had 12 movies that made over $100 million, and several of them — “Independence Day,” “Men in Black,” “I Am Legend,” and “Hancock” — grossed more than $200 million. In fact, other than 1999’s “Wild Wild West,” it would be hard to say that any of his hits were commercial underperformers. His home runs didn’t barely clearly the fence; when he set his mind to it, his shots would leave the stadium, landing somewhere in the parking lot.

He wasn’t just a consistent box office success, though. I’d argue that from 1996 to 2008, no star of his magnitude was as dependably exciting an onscreen presence. It’s not that he never made a bad film — “Hitch” and the “Bad Boy” movies aren’t exactly world-class cinema — but even his weakest offerings were boosted by his endless charisma and unflagging belief that being a movie star is both a genuine thrill and a responsibility worth taking seriously. Whether it was his cocksure strut in “Independence Day,” his effortless comic riffing in “Men in Black,” or his focused intensity in “I Am Legend,” Smith never seemed to be phoning it in. Quite the contrary, he was alive and energized by the challenge of each new project. And let’s not ignore his more serious roles, in films like “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where he proved up to the task of delivering layered, full-bodied performances without much difficulty. (As opposed to his pal Tom Cruise, Smith could go from blockbuster to artful drama without making too much of how strenuous it was for him. Where Cruise wants to be sure you see every ounce of his exertion, Smith simply glides.)

Smith’s run was remarkable, not unlike watching Michael Jordan in his prime winning championship after championship. And like with Jordan, I would try to savor it as much as I could, knowing that, someday, it had to end.

Amazingly, that run has been over for four years now. If 2008 contained one of his great commercial triumphs, “Hancock,” it also concluded with one of his rare box office misfires, the drama “Seven Pounds.” In retrospect, the film’s $70 million gross was hardly disastrous — it’s not like they were making “I, Robot 2” — but its self-serious tone and what’s-the-big-twist-going-to-be? storyline inspired a deadly backlash from critics who found “Seven Pounds” unforgivably manipulative and phony.

That was the last time we’ve seen Smith on screen, and I have to say we’ve all been poorer for his absence. It’s not that movie stars have disappeared — Robert Downey Jr. is a fine Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes — but none of his peers have that particular sparkle that Smith brought to his roles. Watching one of his movies, you enjoyed seeing him, and there was an almost visceral electricity that came off him. Even back when he was part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince in the late 1980s, he was something of a charm machine. His songs were hokey, but you couldn’t help it: You just liked the guy. Same with his TV show. Though clearly ambitious, Smith never seemed like just an opportunistic hustler; there was this casual I’m-your-buddy air about him that made you root for Will Smith. And from his likable, underrated performance in 1993’s “Six Degrees of Separation” onward, I’ve been rooting for the guy.

After years away promoting his kids Jaden and Willow like they were human spin-off series, Smith returns this weekend with “Men in Black 3.” The decision to do a sequel for a franchise that hasn’t produced a film in 10 years might seem like a safe choice, but in some ways it also reflects a reality: We’ve entered an era in which stars (though still important) aren’t nearly as crucial as the brand name. At least for now, gone are the days when just about any movie Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks starred in would be a huge hit. As big a name as Johnny Depp is, he won’t guarantee you millions of dollars unless he’s doing a “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (I’d even argue that, while Depp was certainly a factor in its success, “Alice in Wonderland” got a bigger boost from people’s familiarity with the story.) More often than not, it seems these days that we go to movies because it’s a sequel or prequel to something we know, not because it stars so-and-so.

That was never the case with a Will Smith film. Although he made films based on existing properties — “I, Robot,” “I Am Legend,” “Men in Black” — he was their selling point and their stamp of approval. In a way, it’s almost like he transcended the films he was in; he himself was the franchise. Starring in “Men in Black 3” signals that perhaps he realizes that he’s like so many of his fellow A-listers who need to make sure they align with a property people know. For folks like me who were drawn to movies because of the characters and the stars who played them, this is a depressing, dehumanizing turn of events.

Smith will be 44 in the fall, and he’s no longer the young buck anymore. If his 12-year run was Jordanesque, then my fear is that his return will be akin to Jordan’s after he canceled his retirement and took another stab at basketball. It’ll still be good to have him around, but that ineffable magic will be gone. I hope I’m wrong. I’m sure Smith does, too.

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Documentary Now! Robert Evans Mansion

The Reel Deal

Everything You Need To Know About “Mr. Runner Up” Inspiration Robert Evans

Watch the two-part finale of Documentary Now! this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

In its upcoming two-part finale, Documentary Now! spoofs the crown jewel of docs: The Kid Stays In The Picture. It’s the autobiographical documentary about Robert Evans, the unlikely Hollywood mogul whose mix of self-aggrandizing bravado, classic good looks and extremely circumstantial good luck took him from being a salesman to an actor to the head of Paramount Pictures.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s totally worth it. Rotten Tomatoes agrees, with a staggeringly-high approval rating. Watch it before, or watch it after — doesn’t matter. You’ll appreciate it whenever.

In the meantime, here’s a bit of background that will come in handy…

Robert Loves Robert

Robert Evans desk

USA Films/Everett Collection

Robert Evans is the ultimate Robert Evans fan. The movie was narrated by Robert Evans and based on his memoir of the same name. It is totally unbiased.

He’s Kind Of A Big Deal

Robert Evans, Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Evans produced some of Hollywood’s true classics: Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Love Story…the list goes on. Totally legit and amazing movies.

He’s Also Kind Of A Joke

Wag The Dog
New Line Cinema

Evans has been parodied in TV shows and movies like Entourage and Wag The Dog. He is the quintessential “producer” you already have in your head.

So Wrong He’s Right

Robert Evans Slap
20th Century Film Corp

Robert Evans is a notorious narcissist whose love of self is so blind and sincere that it’s actually adorable.

There’s Something Missing

via Giphy

Entire sections of Robert Evans’ life are left out of the documentary. Maybe it’s because of timing. Maybe it’s because real life isn’t a tidy narrative. Who knows.

He Blew It

Spider coke

Evans had a pretty spectacular fall from grace. He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in the early 80’s, and was connected to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. Oops.

Losing Is For Losers

Everett Collection
Everett Collection

In the Robert Evans mythology, all tragedies are just triumphs in disguise, and every story has a happy ending…for Robert Evans.

Bill Hader Jerry Wallach

With these simple facts in hand you are now prepared to thoroughly enjoy the two-part finale of Documentary Now! starting this Wednesday at 10/9c on IFC.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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