Twenty-five years ago today, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air cabbed its way into America’s hearts—or, more specifically, Will Smith did. The often cartoonish and broadly drawn sitcom ran on NBC for six years, though it would’ve felt right at home among the good-natured and lowbrow charms of ABC’s TGIF block in that same era, perhaps nestled in between Step By Step and Family Matters. Some of this might be the result of Smith’s natural charisma: The actor has always played to the cheap seats, and especially before solidifying his dramatic chops, his hammy tendencies and talent for pratfalls made for easy laughs. The series wasn’t always strong script-wise, but it more than made up for writing weaknesses with its cast, especially the talented James Avery as Philip Banks, and Alfonso Ribeiro, who soon revealed a propensity for full-body comedic energy that almost rivaled Smith’s in its crowd-pleasing mania.
Thus a pattern was established that has continued throughout Smith’s career: A tendency to elevate weak material via sheer force of personality. This isn’t to say the actor hasn’t also made great films; but when it comes to his lesser works, the almost boundless reservoir of charm possessed by the artist formerly known as The Fresh Prince has gone a long way to making these duds palatable. Below, we have collected a sampling of some of the times when Will Smith’s star quality shone brightly, even when his character may have been stuck in a morass of subpar story.
By the time of its final season, The Fresh Prince often seemed to be ambling toward the finish line, its now-internationally-famous movie star eager to graduate from his sitcom and continue the leading-man career he had established with Bad Boys and the already-filmed Independence Day. “I, Clownius” was a particularly lackluster effort, finding Uncle Phil, Will, and Carlton held hostage by a man in a clown suit. The laugh lines are by-the-numbers at best, but even at the late hour, Smith’s versatile ability to transform hacky jokes into genuine laughs shine through. Just witness the pre-credits scene, where he takes multiple groan-worthy bits and makes them watchable through mere personality.
Roland Emmerich’s 1996 alien-invasion film is essentially one long monument to over-the-top-ness, but Smith’s performance anchors it with an easy relatability and matter-of-fact energy that sells even a line as notoriously ridiculous as this one.
One of the most direly unpleasant blockbuster films of the modern era, Wild Wild West features a nigh-incoherent story, creepy racist humor, and gay panic jokes that make Boat Trip look subtle. Yet Will Smith’s star power emerged undimmed. The reason is on display in the scene below, where he manages to make even this laborious slog of an action scene tolerable thanks to his charm.
Men In Black 2, which might be the most forgettable film Smith has made (something about alien Lara Flynn Boyle and Rosario Dawson being the princess of the galaxy, maybe?), nevertheless coasts by on the easy charm of Smith’s Agent J. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt when Tommy Lee Jones is your brusque straight man.
“I can do this all day,” Hancock
In a movie that weirdly decided to dedicate itself to keeping Smith’s natural charisma tucked far out of sight, the actor’s innate likability nevertheless manages to shine through in a few scenes. Here, a brief comic interlude with Charlize Theron lets his disheveled superhero actually have a smidgen of personality.
Dealing with the devil scene, Winter’s Tale
Rarely has Smith been miscast as bizarrely as he is in Winter’s Tale, Akiva Goldsman’s oddball directorial debut about a reincarnated thief trying to save the woman he loves from the clutches of a demon. Yet his uncredited cameo is one of the film’s most intriguing, if only to watch Lucifer tackled by the man who once released an album called Big Willie Style.