Will Smith Swings Big in the Confused 'King Richard'

Smith plays the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams and tries to go for Oscar gold.

king richard, will smith
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

For years now, even when his movies have flopped or disappointed, Will Smith has still maintained the aura of the biggest movie star on the planet. Maybe it's just the simple fact that when he is good, he is so good. Every Fourth of July, people put on Independence Day and are reminded of what pure charisma looks like, so it doesn't matter if Gemini Man underwhelms at the box office or his half-CGI Genie in Aladdin looks uniquely cursed.

And every once in a while—in between appearing on his family's project Red Table Talk and action films—Smith makes a play for an Oscar. He's gotten close in the past with his turn as Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's dense biopic and playing real-life businessman Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness alongside his son Jaden. He now has his best chance yet with King Richard, where he hunches and shuffles and tries to transform himself into Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena. It's a showy performance that has "contender" baked into it. Smith affects a voice to capture Richard's soft-spoken but forceful cadence, and has the kinds of breakdowns and inspirational speeches that the Academy has seemed to like over the years.

But King Richard is also a complicated piece caught in a purgatory between character study and inspirational sports flick. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and produced by the Williams sisters themselves, King Richard sets out to chart how Richard led Venus and Serena to success through his determination and unorthodox training methods. At risk of spoiling an ending most readers already know, the film ends on a note of triumph not just for the girls who obviously went on to become champions multiple times over, but for Richard, who all the doubters got wrong.

But the narrative itself presents a more complicated picture of a man so singularly focused on success that his strategies can seem ludicrous to some and cruel to others. Until the overly simplified ending, Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin seem to want to question Richard: Is he protecting his daughters or controlling them? They present his then-wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) as a foil to him. She challenges him when he wants to leave his children at a convenience store as punishment for bragging too much, and forces him to address the family he essentially abandoned to focus on Venus and Serena.

But occasionally it feels like all involved, including Smith, don't know whether they should be laughing at Richard and decide to do so anyway. Smith plays Richard's sideline coaching moments and irascibility for humor, especially when he's going up against the pro coaches portrayed by Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal. (Bernthal, as the thickly Chicago-accented and mustachioed Rick Macci, is a worthy opponent.)

By the end, when Venus competes in her first pro match, the entire project starts to seem ancillary to the more important story: The rise of two of the greatest tennis players to ever live. King Richard itself is too confused about its protagonist to create a compelling case as to why he should be the focus at all. Smith is caught at the center of that. Though he's putting the full weight of his significant charm behind the characterization, it's not quite enough to illuminate a puzzling figure.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.