When film critics talk about a star's performance, they usually resort to clichés. The actor always "lights up the screen" or "disappears into a role," and watch out, because "you can't take your eyes off him." The reason why writers (and audiences) recycle those old saws is because they're standard emotional responses to great acting: We get wrapped up in the performer's electricity and skill, and banalities tumble out of our mouths.
But no one would dare say anything like that about Jaden Smith, the lead in After Earth. He turns 15 in July, and his first three films have each grossed more than $230 million worldwide. No matter how you measure such things, the kid is a box office star. But he's one of the most unusual in recent time. It's not that he's a bad actor, it's just that he seems profoundly unsure about this whole movie thing. He doesn't light up the screen—he seems genuinely confused by it.
Jaden is, of course, the oldest child of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. When most kids his age were dealing with first grade, he was appearing on the sitcom All of Us, which was co-created by his parents. By the time he turned eight, he was already in his first big Oscar-nominated hit, playing his dad's son in The Pursuit of Happyness.
Will is one of Hollywood's most charismatic figures of the last 20 years. He started off as a confident, funny guy. Later he proved that he had the chops for more serious work like Ali. He's predictably great in The Pursuit of Happyness, playing a man who tries to stay positive around his boy despite falling into homelessness. (It earned him his second Academy Award nomination.) And yet when I think of Happyness, my mind always goes to Jaden. The kid demonstrated he wasn't just some star's son who got into a movie through nepotism. He seemed like a natural—he didn't play a "movie kid" but an authentic real kid who's frightened by his situation and leaning on his resilient father for support. He stole the movie.
It hasn't been the same since. Maybe Happyness was an aberration or beginner's luck. The few times I've seen Jaden since, I've missed that kid that really wowed me back then.
His next film was the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Granted, that entire movie is a waste, but Jaden was especially disappointing, playing your standard bratty-kid character who spends most of the movie sparring with his stepmother before realizing she's actually not so bad. Things didn't get much better two years later, in the Will-produced remake of The Karate Kid. Jaden starred as the young outsider who has to win the girl and learn martial arts to defeat the school bullies. It was a huge hit (his biggest) but no one will remember it. With his famous dad taking a backseat to focus on his kids' careers—later that same year, his sister Willow released her smash single "Whip My Hair"—Karate Kid felt like little more than a prudent business decision to advance Jaden's brand recognition. And in the process, the poor kid's spark seemed to have been snuffed out.
Anybody who's expecting After Earth to reverse the trend will be disappointed. Again, it's not that he's a terrible actor. (At worst, he's a little below average for a teen star, a bit wooden and self-conscious.) But you can't find joy or hunger in his eyes in this movie, which is set 1,000 years in the future and stars him as a wannabe space ranger who must rescue him and his stoic, legendary ranger father (Will) after their spaceship crashes on a hostile Earth. Granted, it's an action-adventure drama that has a post-apocalyptic edge to it—hardly light fare—but then you think about how terrific his father was in I Am Legend, an even darker film. Will has consistently been able to convey intelligence, urgency and even humor in his dramatic roles—the guy just always seems so excited to get to do a movie. His son rarely shows such verve. It's hard to say why, and it's probably stupid to guess. In interviews, Jaden never seems like he's being forced into the family business. But I do wonder if he fully appreciates how lucky he is. Watching him in After Earth, you never get a sense of a young man who gets much joy from what he does. There's no ease or confidence or burning drive or pleasure. He's never embarrassing, but he sure looks blasé—like he'd be just as happy doing something else.
This is not why people go to movies. We pay good money to be entertained, and there's a tacit agreement between us and the stars we're watching that they also want to entertain us. But Jaden Smith seems to break that agreement. Or maybe it's his father and mother, who are both producers on After Earth. (Will also came up with the film's story.) That's why it's difficult for me to be too hard on Jaden—he's only 15, for crying out loud. The strength of his father's career is that he worked really hard to make his stardom seem effortless, a mixture of charm and hustle and drive. He's a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps success story. And now that he's one of the big A-listers, he seems to be mostly concerned with diversifying his portfolio. "It may seem like we have pushed our kids into the business, but that is absolutely insane," Will recently told New York. "I would never, ever, push somebody to have their face on a poster that’s going be everywhere in the world. He is making a choice from the informed. ... I have relationships with some of the biggest filmmakers and actors and producers on Earth. So I can be a huge help." It's fair to suggest that, hey, maybe Will and his wife love their kids and want to support their dreams, just like any parents would. But it's the downside of being one of the most famous men on the planet that your son's baby-steps into film stardom aren't in student shorts but, rather, major summer blockbusters. We're essentially paying for Jaden's artistic maturation. My worry is that it's never going to come.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch