Pass the Popcorn: Fresh Prince of the Fourth

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last week’s PTP was preempted by Independence Day, so this week we get a delayed look at the latest Will Smith summer blockbuster, which opened on July 2. As it happens, we went out and saw it last night at the drive-in, so for once I’ll have actually seen the movie I’m reviewing.

But since our focus around here is generally retrospective, I want to start with a look back at the amazing career of one of the few movie stars of his generation who’s always appealing. But, like Pixar, he wasn’t always what he is now! The Will Smith summer blockbuster machine is so effective that it’s hard to remember a time when he was just the latest fly-by-night novelty act. So join me – won’t you? – in a leisurely stroll down memory lane:

(HT Press Rewind)

Love the hat in that last one!

And who could forget this immortal contribution to the novelty genre? It’s hard for me to believe this now, but when I was 15 years old, that was the funniest thing in the whole history of the world without exception.

While we’re on the subject, is there anything more amazing, and at the same time profoundly disturbing, than the fact that the army of geeks who are the Internet have taken the time and the intelligence and the energy and all the other gifts God gave them and used them all to produce not only a detailed profile of the DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince act, but even one of DJ Jazzy Jeff himself? Jazzy Jeff has apparently gone on to become “an R&B producer of note,” so at least one member of the act managed to save his career after the breakup.

OK, this is all good fun, but we all know how the story ends. The crashed alien ship opens and the hideous monster appears, bent on destroying all human life it can lay its tentacles on, and then the Fresh Prince decks it in one blow, pops a stogie into his mouth and says . . .

“Welcome to Earth!”


In that golden moment, a star was born.

(Too bad the movie in which it occurred was such a comprehensive stinker; of the millions of humor e-mails that used to get circulated back when the Internet was text-based, one of the funniest I ever saw was “40 Things I Learned from Independence Day.”)

Actually, looking the man up on IMDB (carefully avoiding the entries for Will Smith, art director of one TV episode in 1998; Will Smith, writer and actor for obscure cable shows; Will Smith, actor in the 2006 movie Wormwood; William Smith, sound technician on numerous movies and TV shows for 16 years; and Will Smith, frequent appearer as himself on the program “HGTV Design Star”) I am shocked to discover that the movie Bad Boys came out a full year before Independence Day – in other words, at a time when there was no Will Smith, only the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (which show was still on the air at the time).

The next July 4 weekend came Men in Black, which has worn extremely well and remains one of the all-time best summer movies. Don’t believe me? Get it out and watch it. If you don’t laugh your pants off, I’ll give you your money back on this blog entry.

And then, in a turn of events that has become something of a theme here on Pass the Popcorn, it all started to go wrong. First came Enemy of the State, which must have been a big comedown for Gene Hackman, who starred in The Conversation, the outstanding 1970s movie that Enemy of the State would have been trying to be if it were trying to do anything but milk money from Will Smith. And then there was Wild Wild West, which subject we shall pass by unremarked upon.

But in this case, Smith found redemption. He had always had serious acting chops and the ambition to use them, as he had proved waaaaaaaay back in 1993 with Six Degrees of Separation. So he quit making stupid movies and broadened his horizons, first with The Legend of Bagger Vance and then with Ali. No one mistakes these movies for timeless classics, but for Smith they represent the path back from the brink of the abyss.

Having rescued himself from a fate worse than death, he dove back into blockbuster territory, making Men in Black II (which was fun and did the job of killing two hours pleasantly), Bad Boys II and I, Robot. Then, after a one-year transitional return to comedy with Hitch, it was back to serious acting (this time even more serious) with The Pursuit of Happyness and I Am Legend – the latter clearly with one foot in both worlds, garnering praise for his performance as well as delivering action . . . though the angsty twist ending was changed at the last minute and what they hastily threw together to replace it makes no sense at all, landing the movie alongside Blade Runner, Dawn of the Dead, Superman II and Die Hard 4 on Cracked’s list of “5 Awesome Movies Ruined by Last-Minute Changes.”

Now we have Hancock. The critics hate it, but what do they know? I had a great time.

Skimming the pans, the main complaints seem to be 1) it contains “treacle,” and 2) it could have been much better than it was. It must be admitted up front that some treacle does occur in the movie. I found that it passed by relatively painlessly. I think that’s because the treacle is just there for setup. In order to communicate the premise in time to move on and do everything this movie wants to do, it has to paint you a psychological portrait of Hancock in double-quick time. This is done by having Hancock encounter a clean-cut do-gooder who rapidly diagnoses Hancock’s dysfunctions and explains to him why he behaves the way he does. And then we’re off to the races! It could certainly have been done with more subtlety, but I found the damage limited.

“I will fight crime . . . . . . . butt . . . naked . . . before I wear that.”

And it’s also true that this movie could have been something much better than it is – again, if it had been done with more subtlety, and if more care had been taken to keep certain plot points a little more logical, particularly in the climax. But while this isn’t the great movie it could have been, it’s still quite good if you take it for what it is. There’s a lot here to enjoy. Some of it is slapstick and bull-in-the-china-shop stuff – Hancock blundering through heroics while drunk, Hancock graphically describing to a seven-year-old (in front of his horrified mother) what he should do to the school bully – and that stuff is good, but there’s also some clever wit, especially when Hancock is trying to clean up his act with the help of a PR consultant, and we watch him walk through the same painfully artificial gestures that the same PR consultants train our business and political leaders to perform in real life, except that Hancock doesn’t have the skill they have at faking sincerity and it all comes off wrong. I doubt I’ll be buying the movie, but I thoroughly enjoyed the two hours I spent watching it.

5 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: Fresh Prince of the Fourth

  1. Brian Kisida says:

    Will Smith is one of the odd transitions from “musician” to actor that worked–by which I mean he is a better actor than music maker. Didn’t it always bother you that Parents Just Don’t Understand, Girls of the World Aint Nothin but Trouble, and Nightmare on My Street had exactly the same rap structure? I know Shakespeare was partial to iambic pentameter and didn’t stray that often, but Smith overused his own fallback stock phrasing strategy and it became annoyingly tiresome.

    He then followed those up with ripoff songs including Wild Wild West (used the music and melody from Stevie Wonder’s I Wish), Men in Black (used the music and melody from Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots”), Gettin Jiggy With It (used the music from Sister Sledge’s “Greatest Dancer), Will2K (used the music and melody from Rock the Casbah by the Clash). and Miami (used the music from the Whispers’ “And the Beat Goes On”).

    If you have never heard some of these originals, a few of them are so much better than Smith’s versions that they warrant a listen.

    Stevie Wonder’s I Wish:

    Sister Sledge’s He’s the Greatest Dancer:

    Patrice Rushen’s Forget Me Nots:

    The Clash’s Rock the Casbah:

    I guess we could also say he ripped off Charlton Heston’s Omega Man with I am Legend, but it wasn’t as blatant. Had they used CGI to simply put Will Smith’s head on Heston’s body and kept the rest of the movie intact it would have been comparable to Smith’s approach to music making.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    “Didn’t it always bother you that Parents Just Don’t Understand, Girls of the World Ain’t Nothin but Trouble, and Nightmare on My Street had exactly the same rap structure?”

    Oh, yeah, I stayed up nights worried about that. 🙂

    For the record, I Am Legend was a comic book first, so your beef is with the comic’s author – if you really want to press charges, given that “last man on earth after everyone else is turned to zombies” is such a genre cliche that it should really be considered a public domain property by now.

  3. Brian Kisida says:

    I agree its literally public domain now, and I knew the comic book existed, and there was also a movie in the ’60s entitled The Last Man on Earth. I was just showing off my abundance of useless knowledge, and I love to reference Omega Man when possible. One of my favorites of the genre was a film from New Zealand, I think it was called “The Quiet Earth.” No Zombies, but it had the last man on earth theme.

    Thanks for the review of Hancock, I’ll probably go see it now.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    BTW, I meant to mention that I’m looking forward to seeing this movie reviewed by one of the Internet’s most important scholarly scientific resources, Intuitor’s Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics site:

    They’ve redesigned the site so you have to scroll down to find the specific movie reviews. There’s usually a hefty time lag, so I’m not expecting to see this movie up there soon. But Hancock is the first movie I’ve seen where the bullets don’t make little sparky explosions when they ricochet, a pet peeve of Intuitor’s. And I’m curious what they thought of some of the other stuff.

  5. Brian Kisida says:

    Regarding the Wall-E discussion, I think you would enjoy (and agree with) this piece from the Washington Post entitled “Wall-E and Adam Smith” by Michael Gerson.

    Or, if you are too busy to read the whole thing, the best snippet:

    “Some conservatives have dismissed “Wall-E” as a crude critique of business and capitalism. This is true only if capitalism is identical to boundless consumerism — a conviction that Adam Smith did not seem to share. Smith argued that human flourishing requires “good temper and moderation.” Self-command and the prudent use of freedom are central to his moral theory. And these are precisely the virtues celebrated in “Wall-E.” The end credits — worth staying to see — are a beautiful tribute to art and work, craft and cultivation.”

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