By Katey Rich
I finally get it. I finally get why Will Smith is the most bankable star in America, and why everything he does-- whether its playing an alien-killing guy in a suit or a homeless father--resonates with huge audiences worldwide.
I figured this out after spending some quality time with him in I Am Legend, possibly the world's only one-man show-cum-zombie movie. While there is a handful of actors capable of carrying an entire movie on their shoulders-- Daniel Day-Lewis is out there doing it right now--Will Smith does it uniquely here. He's not hiding behind a real-life person, or an outsized character, or even a big mustache. He's playing a regular man, with regular fears and a regular sense of humor, who happens to be the last man left on Earth.
It's a surprisingly tough gig. He spends much of the film in conversation with a German shepherd, which he easily pulls off with his innate charisma. In other sections, though, he lays bare the psychological toll taken on his character, Robert Neville, in the three years he has spent surviving in New York City while zombie hordes lurk in the unknown shadows. He stages mannequins around town and waves hello to them, like his friends and neighbors; when something goes wrong with one of them, though, you realize it's not a game. He's deeply unsettled by it, and by turn you're deeply unsettled too.
Smith, with his wide-open face and everyman persona, makes Neville entirely relatable even in his bizarre circumstances. Late in the film, when Neville goes on something of a suicide mission against the zombie-vampire creatures who used to be his fellow New Yorkers, you understand before it's said why he's misdirecting his rage so badly. In a movie that could have been a nonsense exploration of humanity and morality within a sci-fi context, he gives you an archetypal hero. Daniel Day-Lewis, great as he is, probably couldn't have done that.
The movie eventually goes off the rails and bungles its ending, as so many sci-fi movies seem prone to do these days, but up to that point I Am Legend is a remarkably quiet, well-crafted genre piece that's held together by a terrific lead performance. I have to admit I was secretly hoping Will Smith would sneak his way into a Golden Globe nomination yesterday morning, though if Viggo Mortensen asks, I never said that. I'll be happy to see I Am Legend rake in the money this weekend, though I obviously would rather send all of America to see The Savages and No Country for Old Men instead. I just love that in an era of manufactured "stars" with marginal talent, Will Smith is the real deal, and moviegoers consistently recognize it.