Wednesday 21 March 2018

Is the Fresh Prince starting to turn a little stale?

Will Smith is talking about religion and patterns in the universe amid Hollywood rumours he's a scientologist

Will power: Smith's latest release 'After Earth', has been panned by critics. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Will power: Smith's latest release 'After Earth', has been panned by critics. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)
Will Smith with his son Jaden who also stars in 'After Earth'. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Will as the 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air'.

Joe O'Shea

After two decades as Hollywood's Golden Boy, Will Smith has got a blockbuster-sized problem.

Smith's latest mega-expensive sci-fi extravaganza, After Earth, has been savaged by the critics and flopped at the box-office, taking just €20m on its opening weekend in the US (where it trailed in third behind the latest Fast And Furious explosion-fest and the relatively unheralded, magic-themed thriller, Now You See Me).

The reviews have not been kind, with critics lambasting the post-apocalyptic saga as an "expensive disaster", 2013's "first bomb", and a film "that barely registers as entertainment".

And a series of bizarre interviews have fuelled fresh speculation about Smith's connections to scientology, with his latest movie being labelled (by some US critics at least) a "love letter" to the church.

Will and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith have denied that they are scientologists in the past and in his most recent interviews, Smith will only say he is a "student of world religions".

However, US media organisations have uncovered sizable cash donations from the Smiths to the controversial church founded by L Ron Hubbard. And a school founded by the Smiths in Los Angeles in 2008 has had teaching modules devised (in part) by the Church of Scientology.

Whatever his religious beliefs, the former Fresh Prince has been Hollywood's most bankable star for more than a decade. From 1996 to 2008 he starred in 12 films that grossed more than $100m at the US box office alone.

Smith has even managed to found an acting and pop music dynasty, pushing his son Jaden (his co-star in After Earth) and daughter Willow into the international limelight.

And a recent, barn-storming appearance by Will and Jaden on The Graham Norton Show proved that they still have mega-watt star power.

However, the 44-year-old actor and his family are now facing what amounts to a growing backlash from the media, film industry and the public.

Questions are being asked about his religious beliefs. And more importantly in Hollywood, his bankability.

As Tom Cruise has found to his great cost, the cinema-going public do not warm to A-list stars with out-there religious beliefs and cranky opinions on psychiatry, the universe and everything else.

Smith's recent problems started with last summer's very disappointing Men In Black 3 and continued when he gave an interview earlier this year in which he said he said he had turned down Jamie Foxx's part in Django Unchained because it wasn't big enough.

That statement reeked of arrogance and not a little disrespect for Foxx and Django director Quentin Tarantino, a slight that didn't go unnoticed in Hollywood.

Smith and son then set out on the promo-trail for After Earth and gave an interview to one US online magazine that seemed to confirm their adherence to scientology, an association that Smith has always been coy about.

In a bizarre Q&A with, Smith broke away from talking about his new movie to talk about his belief in "patterns", saying: "I'm a student of patterns. At heart, I'm a physicist. I look at everything in my life as trying to find the single equation, the theory of everything."

Jaden, the 14-year-old star of The Karate Kid, chipped in with: "It's beyond mathematical. It's, like, multidimensional mathematical, if you can sort of understand what I'm saying."

Smith senior then went on to talk about the patterns he had noticed in Oscar winners, how Best Actor statuettes tend to be won "almost 90pc of the time" by actors portraying a historical figure or a character with mental illness.

He did admit, however, that it was harder to see a pattern for Best Actress winners: "The patterns are all over the place, but for whatever reason, it's really difficult to find the patterns in Best Actress."

Declaring themselves "students of world religion", the father-and-son acting team then outlined their plans for dominating the worldwide box office for decades to come.

However, Will also spoke of resenting fame, an unusual declaration from an A-lister in the middle of a promotional tour for a $150m movie.

Smith's declarations could have just been dismissed as the ramblings of yet another Hollywood A-lister divorced from day-to-day reality.

And few people expect the wisdom of the ages from a 14-year-old boy, especially when he has grown up inside the world of Hollywood royalty.

However, when added to two failed summer blockbusters in a row, the wacky declarations about being a "physicist" sound less like typical Hollyweird silliness and more like a star losing their grip.

Box-office analysts in the US trade papers have already started to ask (in the case of Entertainment Weekly (EW) at least) if "the shine is coming off Will Smith?"

"I think that people aren't as charmed by him as they used to be, and that does create a question mark around and affect the box office at some level," says EW's Grady Smith.

Sony Pictures Entertainment, the studio behind After Earth, already knew they had a battle on their hands before the picture even opened.

The studio wisely ensured that the movie's director, the critic-dividing M Night Shyamalan, was kept well away from the publicity drive.

The studio has now gone into damage-control mode, pointing out that they still expect After Earth to make up for the disappointment at the US box-office by doing very well on the international market.

"While we were expecting more domestically, we believe the film will perform strongly when we open overseas over the next few weeks," said a Sony spokesman this week.

The studio can certainly hope to make a sizable profit on the international market. Smith is perhaps more popular in Europe and in major emerging markets in Asia than he is currently at home.

However, the long-term outlook for Smith is not encouraging, especially if he cannot learn to rein in his more outlandish statements about developing a unified theory for the universe.

The actor may have forgotten what made him such a huge star in the first place: charisma, charm and plenty of humour.

And that is where After Earth falls down. Dubbed a dark, humourless series of crashes, explosions and weirdly flimsy CGI-effects, it lacks the kind of humour and light-touch that made Men In Black a billion-dollar franchise.

As Tom Cruise proved with the success of Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, A-listers can come back from years of bad publicity and the public perception of strangeness.

Those close to Smith might also advise him to dial down the talk of seeing patterns in the universe. It's not exactly what the public want from the wise-cracking, alien-ass-kicking star best known for 'Gettin' Jiggy wit It'.

Irish Independent

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment